Did Groucho Marx Have Estate Planning and Elder Care Problems?

Julius Henry Marx, better known as Groucho, died 42 years ago on Aug. 19, 1977, at age 86. Groucho teamed with three of his four brothers—Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo—to become stars of vaudeville, Broadway, film, radio and television. (A fifth brother, Gummo, wasn’t part of the act).

PBS News Hours’ recent article, “How Groucho Marx fell prey to elder abuse” reports that the legal battles over Groucho’s money and possessions went on long after he died. The unrest of his last few years is familiar to adult children concerned with the well-being of their elderly parents.

Groucho’s relationships with his son Arthur and daughter Miriam (children from his first marriage) were also strained for various reasons. To add flame to the fire, Arthur wrote several books based on life in the Marx family, and Groucho threatened litigation over his portrayal in one of Arthur’s memoirs.

In the last few years of his life, Groucho had a companion, Erin Fleming, who was accused of elder abuse. Fleming was Groucho’s secretary-manager and was responsible for his popular comeback in the early 1970s. Fleming successfully campaigned for the Marx Brothers to receive a special Academy Award in 1974. In his acceptance speech, Groucho thanked “Erin Fleming, who makes my life worth living and who understands all my jokes.” However, some of Groucho’s friends thought that Fleming was pushing him too hard to perform, given his age and memory loss.

In 1974, Fleming was appointed his guardian and temporary conservator of an estate worth an estimated $2-$4 million. In 1975, Groucho even tried to adopt her, until a psychologist said he was not mentally competent.

Arthur Marx, Groucho’s son, sued Fleming for having a harmful and destructive influence on his father, including threatening his well-being and being abusive. He also claimed that she pushed Groucho to perform, against his best interest, for her own financial gain. In Groucho’s final days, a judge appointed the 72-year-old Nat Perrin, a close pal of Groucho’s and co-writer of the Marx Brothers’ 1933 film, “Duck Soup,” as temporary conservator of Groucho’s well-being and estate. Later, his grandson, Andrew, was named permanent conservator.

Even after he died, litigation concerning Groucho’s estate went on into the early 1980s. Groucho left most of his estate to his children but gave control of his name, image and movie rights to Fleming—an issue of dispute that led to substantial legal battles.

The court found in favor of Groucho’s children and ordered Fleming to pay $472,000, which she bilked from Groucho’s bank accounts, while she worked for him. Fleming committed suicide in 2003 at the age of 61.

In the 1970s, the term “elder abuse” had not been used, even though it existed. Today, elder abuse is a growing problem. There’s a long list of harmful activities, including physical, sexual, emotional, and psychological forms of abuse and neglect, as well as the theft or withholding of financial assets needed to live.

In identifying when elder abuse may be happening, it is important to keep in mind that some elders may be more susceptible than others due to risk factors. These include functional dependence or disability, poor physical health, cognitive impairment and dementia, low income, financial dependence, race or ethnicity, gender, and age.

Perpetrators also have their own set of risk factors, which include mental illness, substance abuse, relationship status (spouse/partners are often the most common perpetrators of emotional and physical elder abuse), and the abuser’s potential dependency on their victims for emotional support, financial help, housing and other forms of assistance.

Get some expert legal and medical advice on estate planning and the creation of a living will so that your wishes are known, and you and your estate are protected properly.

Reference: PBS News Hour (August 19, 2019) “How Groucho Marx fell prey to elder abuse” 

What Do I Need to Do Financially, When We Have a Baby?

In addition to all the logistics involved with a new baby, new parents should also take care of financial and legal matters in the months leading up to the big day.

U.S. News & World Report’s recent article, “Financial Steps to Take When You’re Pregnant” reminds us that pregnancy is a terrific time to review your financial life. It’s a great time to assess your budget, emergency savings, estate planning documents, and insurance needs to see if anything needs to be refreshed.

Here are a few things to do to prepare for a new baby:

Employee Benefits. Take a look at your employee benefits or have a conversation with HR to determine how much time you can take off and whether you’ll be paid your salary while on parental leave. This is important because many families are faced with higher living costs by the presence of a new baby, which is often combined with taking parental leave that may cut their take-home pay. New parents may have to use the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which offers eligible employees 12 weeks of unpaid leave, or tap into short-term disability insurance, which typically only replaces a portion of your salary. The amount you receive in short-term disability will also be impacted by whether you pay premiums with pre-tax or post-tax dollars. If you pay with pretax, your benefit will be subject to taxes, which will decrease the overall amount received.

While reviewing these policies, look at your health insurance and see what kind of prenatal visits and pediatric care are covered. You should also look at the terms of your health insurance policy since you could be liable for health insurance premiums during periods where you are taking leave from work. Also, remember that you’ll need to add your baby to your medical insurance within 30 days of the birth.

Budget. Create a new budget that takes into account changes in your income from taking leave and new expenses from having a new baby. You may have to survive several weeks without your normal level of income, so be sure that you have enough saved up to get through that period. After that, create another budget that considers more long-term expenses associated with the new one, such as the cost of childcare, diapers, and formula, all of which can add up.

Life Insurance. Determine if your current life insurance will meet your needs. If you need more, look at term life insurance. It’s usually affordable and expires after a set term, typically anywhere from 10 to 30 years. This policy payout would help a surviving parent or guardian care for your child.

Estate Planning. Consider who would care for your child if both parents were to die before they turn 18. Talk to family or close friends about who you’d like as the guardian of the child. Talk to an estate planning attorney to update (or create) a will and guardianship choices. In addition, ask about formulating a plan for how inheritance, insurance, and other assets will be handled and disbursed if you die while the child is a minor. A revocable living trust can be one way to direct a future inheritance. You can designate your child as the beneficiary and a relative or close friend as the trustee. The trustee will help decide how the money is spent. This trust is usually included in the will and activates after the death of the person who created it.

Beneficiary Designations. Update any beneficiary designations on your retirement and insurance accounts to include your child, but make sure and ask about meeting requirements for how minors can own property.

529 College Savings Account. You should also look into funding a 529 college savings account but don’t feel pressure to contribute a lot. Making certain that your budget, estate, and insurance needs are tailored to meet your new family dynamic are more pressing concerns.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (August 29, 2019) “Financial Steps to Take When You’re Pregnant”

Advance Planning Key for Alzheimer’s Patients

A retired physician and his wife have allowed a local television station to report their family’s journey with Alzheimer’s over the course of the last four years. The series continues with WCCO CBS Minnesota’s article “All Lined Up Before You Need It’: Alzheimer’s Association Shares Steps for Estate Planning,” with four steps to take if you notice that a family member is having memory lapses or trouble with simple tasks.

The Quinn family—Dr. Paul Quinn and his wife Peg—had some tough conversations years ago. This was a period when Paul’s memory was better, and when he was able to be completely honest with his wife about his wishes and what the couple would need to do moving forward.

Peg Quinn said that getting everything lined up long before it’s needed is very important.

If there’s any sign of cognitive decline, there are legal and financial steps that must be pursued. Start with addressing the family budget and projected medical costs for long term care. If possible, gather all family members together for a planning session.

If they live in different parts of the state, or of the country, ask the family members to travel for a weekend family meeting. This is the kind of planning that is better when everyone is physically present.

Start by naming a power of attorney. It needs to be someone who is aware of the situation and will be able to make decisions on behalf of the diagnosed individual. An estate planning attorney can assist in making this decision.

Next, establish an advance health care directive with a focus on medical decisions. This may be the toughest part since it is impossible to know how long someone will live with Alzheimer’s, or what kind of lifestyle that person would be living. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the average patient lives between four to eight years while suffering from Alzheimer’s. The cost of care can add up fast—as much as $5,000 to $7,000 a month in some cases.

That’s why the next step—selecting an elder law estate planning attorney is so important. Planning for long-term care, qualifying for Medicaid and other benefits, is a complex challenge.

Dr. Quinn expressed his wishes to stay in his home as long as possible. The familiarity of their home makes life much easier for both of them, so they agreed early on to have in-home care if it’s ever needed.

An estate planning attorney can help the family by drafting any necessary estate planning documents and creating a plan as early as possible. A trust must be created and executed before the person is legally incompetent. The same goes for a power of attorney and any health care power of attorney documents. Medicaid planning should be done as soon as possible since there is a five-year look-back period concerning transferring any assets.

Whether you or a family member just got a diagnosis or already in the throes of Alzheimer’s, consult an estate planning attorney to review any documents or arrangements to ensure that your affairs are in order and that you are prepared for the future.

Reference: WCCO CBS Minnesota (July 23, 2019) “’All Lined Up Before You Need It’ : Alzheimer’s Association Shares Steps for Estate Planning”

ACHD’s and Dementia

It’s wise for anyone older than 55 to have an advance health care directive in place, should they become incapacitated, so a trusted agent can fulfill the patient’s wishes in a dignified manner. But what do you do if a loved one who may be incapacitated didn’t have the chance to plan ahead?

In the recent article, “What to do in absence of advance directive” by The Roanoke Times, a doctor advises readers to talk to an experienced elder care attorney to coordinate the necessary legal issues that may arise a parent or other loved one may be exhibiting symptoms of dementia with no advance health care directive in place. After consulting with an attorney, ask your physician for an evaluation consultation for your loved one with a board-certified geriatrician and a referral to a social worker to assist in navigating the medical system.

As a family’s planning starts, the issue of legal capacity (frequently referred to as “competency” by some physicians) must be defined. Dementia or a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease doesn’t necessarily indicate a lack of capacity. At this point, a patient still has the right to make his or her own financial and life decisions—despite family members disagreeing with it. A patient’s capacity should be evaluated after a number of poor choices or an especially serious choice that puts a patient or others at risk.

An evaluation will determine the patient’s factual understanding of concepts, decision-making and cogent expression of choices, the possible consequences of their choices and reasoning of the decision’s pros and cons. Healthcare professionals make the final determination, and these results are provided to the court.

If a patient passes the evaluation, they are deemed to have the mental capacity to make choices on their own. If they cannot demonstrate competency, an attorney can petition the court for a competency hearing, after which a trustee may be appointed to oversee their affairs.

The time to address these types of issues is before the patient becomes incapacitated. The family should clearly define and explore the topics of advance health care directives, estate planning, and powers of attorney now with an experienced elder law attorney.

Taking these proactive actions can be one of the greatest gifts a person can bestow upon themselves and their loved ones. It can give a family peace of mind. If you put an advance health care directive in place, it can provide that gift when it’s needed the most.

Reference: Roanoke Times (June 17, 2019) “What to do in absence of advance directive”

Does Estate Planning Include Your Account Passwords?

With most bank customers receiving financial statements electronically instead of on paper, there are some actions you need to take to be sure your accounts and account passwords are incorporated into your estate planning.

Kiplinger’s recent story, Your Estate Plan Isn’t Complete Without Fixing the Password Problem,” says that having online access to investments is a great convenience for us. We can monitor bank balances, conduct stock trades, transfer funds, and many other services that not long ago required the help of another person.

The bad thing about these advancements is that they can make for a very difficult situation for a surviving spouse or executor attempting to determine where the assets of a deceased person are held.

This was in the news recently, when the founder and CEO of a cryptocurrency exchange died unexpectedly. Gerry Cotten didn’t share the password to the exchange’s cold storage locker—leaving $190 million in cryptocurrency belonging to his clients totally inaccessible. Investors may never see their funds again.

You can see how important it is to provide a way for someone to access your data, if you become incapacitated or die.

The easiest, but least secure answer is to just give your account passwords to a trusted family member. They’ll need passwords to access your accounts. They’ll also need a password to access your email, where electronic financial statements are sent. Another simple option is to write down and place all passwords in a safe deposit box. You should be aware that this may be a violation of the terms and conditions of the account custodian.

Your executor or guardian/attorney-in-fact through a power of attorney (in the case of incapacitation) can access the box and your passwords to access your computer, email and financial platforms.

This is a bit safer than simply writing down and providing passwords to a trusted friend or spouse. However, it requires diligence to keep the password list updated.

A more secure way to safely and securely store passwords is with a digital wallet. A digital wallet keeps track of all your passwords across all your devices and does so in an encrypted file in the cloud.

There’s only one obstacle for an executor or surviving spouse to overcome—the password for your digital wallet. However, as mentioned above, the custodian of the account may terminate the account for sharing your account passwords.

It is highly recommended that you research this issue and review your options with your account like Facebook that can designate what happens to the account.

Reference: Kiplinger (April 19, 2019) “Your Estate Plan Isn’t Complete Without Fixing the Password Problem”

Why Do Singles Need These Two Estate Planning Tools?

Morningstar’s article, “2 Estate-Planning Tools That Singles Should Consider” explains that a living will, or advance medical directive, is a legal document that details your wishes for life-sustaining treatment. It’s a document that you sign when you’re of sound mind and says you want to be removed from life supporting measures, if you become terminally ill and incapacitated.

If you’re on life support with no chance of getting better, you’d choose to have your family avoid the expense and stress of keeping you alive artificially.

Like a living will, a durable power of attorney for healthcare is a legal document that names an agent to make healthcare decisions for you, if you are unable to make them yourself.

A durable power of attorney for healthcare can provide your instructions in circumstances in which you’re not necessarily terminally ill, but you are incapacitated.

When selecting an agent, find a person you trust enough to act on your behalf when you’re unable. Let this person know exactly how you feel about blood transfusions, organ transplants, disclosure of your medical information and other sensitive topics that may arise, if you’re incapacitated.

A power of attorney eliminates any confusion, especially if this person is someone other than your spouse. Your doctors will know exactly who the decision-maker is among your relatives and friends.

These two documents aren’t all that comprise a fully comprehensive estate plan. Singles should regularly make certain that the beneficiary designations on their checking and retirement accounts are up to date.

You should also consider your life insurance needs, especially if you have children and/or a mortgage.

It is also important to understand that a living will doesn’t address the issues of a will. A will ensures that your property is distributed after your death, in accordance with your wishes. Ask for help from an experienced estate planning attorney.

These two documents—a living will and a durable power of attorney—can help ensure that in a healthcare emergency, any medical and financial decisions made on your behalf are in accordance with what you really want. Speak with to an estate-planning attorney in your state to get definitive answers to your questions.

If you are in California, these two documents are often combined and are called an Advance Health Care Directive. 

Reference: Morningstar (April 23, 2019) “2 Estate-Planning Tools That Singles Should Consider”

What Are the Six Most Frequent Estate Planning Mistakes?

It is a grim topic, but it is an important one. Without a legal will in place, your loved ones may spend years stuck in court proceedings and spend a lot in legal fees to settle your estate. The San Diego Tribune writes in its recent article, 6 estate-planning mistakes to avoid, that without a plan, everything is more stressful and expensive. Let’s look at the top six estate planning mistakes that people need to avoid:

No Plan. Regardless of your age or financial status, it’s critical to have a basic estate plan. This includes crafting powers of attorney for both healthcare and finances and a will.

No Discussion. Once you create your plan, tell your family. Those you’ve named to take care of you, need to know what you’ve decided and where to find your plan.

Focusing Only on Taxes. Estate planning can be much more than just about tax avoidance. There are many other reasons to create an estate plan that have nothing to do with taxes, like charitable giving, special needs planning for a family member, succession planning in the event of incapacity and planning for children of a prior marriage, to name just a few.

Leaving Assets Directly to Children. If you leave assets directly to your children or grandchildren under age 18, it can cause unintended custodian or guardianship issues. Minors can’t own legal property, so a guardian will be appointed by the court to manage the property for them, until they reach age 18. If you don’t name a guardian, the court will appoint one for you and that person may have very different ideas about how the account should be managed and invested.

Making Mistakes with Ownership and Property Titles. With many blended families, you may want to preserve assets from an inheritance as your own separate property or from a prior marriage for your children. There are many tax consequences and control issues in blended families about which you may not be aware.

Messing Up Your Trust. Many people don’t properly fund or update their trusts. An unfunded trust doesn’t do anyone any good. Assets that aren’t titled in the name of the trust don’t avoid probate.

Finally, be sure to review your estate plan regularly, as your circumstances change.

Reference: San Diego Tribune (April 18, 2019) “6 estate-planning mistakes to avoid”

What Are the Five “Must Have” Estate Planning Documents?

WTHR 13’s recent article, “The 5 legal documents every adult should have” lists the five “must have” estate planning documents involved in estate planning.

  1. General Durable Power of Attorney. This document states who you want to make decisions if you’re unable to do so for yourself. Without it, your family may have to petition the courts to become your legal guardian/conservator, which can be time consuming and expensive. A power of attorney allows the person whom you select, to pay your mortgage or rent and your bills.
  2. Health Care Power of Attorney. (Also known as an Advance Healthcare Directive) This document plans for the situation, if you are unable to make your own health care decisions. You name someone you trust, like family members or friends, to do this on your behalf.
  3. Will. This says that when you pass away, here’s what I want to happen. A will states who will get your assets after your death. If you don’t have a valid will in place, the state laws of intestacy will govern what will happen to your estate—which may not be what you want.
  4. Living Will. This is the document in which you state your instructions for end-of-life care, such as life support. This document is used to make certain that your family and physicians know what you want your end-of-life care to be. A living will is much different than a will and many times may be incorporated into the Advance Healthcare Directive.
  5. Revocable Living Trust. This document can be important, if you’re a parent with young children and would like your assets passed down properly to your children if you die. Typically, if children are under 18, they’re legally minors and can’t receive assets. A trust can help coordinate the receiving your property and avoid probate on your death.

An experienced estate planning attorney can help you with the creation of these documents, while creating an overall plan so that your wishes are followed, your legacy is protected and your family is secure.

Reference: WTHR 13 (April 17, 2019) “The 5 legal documents every adult should have”

How Do I Get My Mom’s Affairs in Order?

What can you do to make sure your mother’s financial affairs are in proper order?

The Monterey Herald’s recent article, “Financial planning: Making sure Mom is taken care of,” says to first make sure that she has her basic estate planning documents in place. She should have a will and an Advance Health Care Directive. Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney to make sure these documents fully reflect your mother’s desires. An Advance Health Care Directive lets her name a person to make health care decisions on her behalf, if she becomes incapacitated. This decision-making authority is called a Power of Attorney for Health Care, and the person receiving the authority is known as the agent.

Based on the way in which the form is written, the agent can have broad authority, including the ability to consent to or refuse medical treatment, surgical procedures and artificial nutrition or hydration. The form also allows a person to leave instructions for health care, such as whether or not to be resuscitated, have life prolonged artificially, or to receive treatment to alleviate pain, even if it hastens death. To limit these instructions in any specific way, talk to an attorney.

Another option is to create a living trust, if the value of her estate is significant. In some states, (including California) estates worth more than a certain amount are subject to probate—a costly, lengthy and public process. Smaller value estates usually can avoid probate. When calculating the value of an estate, you can exclude several types of assets, including joint tenancy property, property that passes outright to a surviving spouse, assets that pass outside of probate to named beneficiaries (such as pensions, IRAs, and life insurance), multiple party accounts or pay on death (POD) accounts and assets owned in trust, including a revocable trust.  You should also conduct a full inventory of your parent’s accounts, including where they’re held and how they’re titled. Your parents should update the named beneficiaries on IRAs, retirement plans and life insurance policies.

Some adult children will have their parent name them as a joint owner on their checking account. This allows you greater flexibility to settle outstanding obligations, when she passes away. But, it is important not to put a large account in joint tenancy for tax reasons. Also, a joint owner automatically becomes the owner, on the other joint tenant’s death. Remember that a financial power of attorney won’t work here, because it will lapse upon your mother’s death. However, note that any asset held by joint owners are subject to the creditors of each joint owner. Do not add your daughter as a joint owner, if she has current or potential marital, financial, or legal problems!

You also shouldn’t put your name as a joint owner of a brokerage account—especially one with low-cost basis investments. One of the benefits of transferring wealth, is the step-up in cost basis assets receive at time of death. Being named as the joint owner of an account will give you control over the assets in the account—but you won’t get the step up in basis, when your mother passes.

Reference: Monterey Herald (March 20, 2019) “Financial planning: Making sure Mom is taken care of”

As a New Parent, Have You Updated (or Created) Your Estate Plan?

Congrats, you are a new parent! Now you’re sleep-deprived, overwhelmed, and frazzled. Having a child dramatically changes one’s legacy plan and makes having a plan all the more necessary, says ThinkAdvisor’s recent article, “5 Legacy Planning Basics for New Parents.” If you don’t have an estate plan, now is the time to create one.

Even though you are tired, it is important to take time to talk through two high-priority items. Create a staggered checklist—starting with today—and set attainable dates to complete the rest of the tasks. Here are five things to put on that list:

  1. Will/Guardianship Nomination. This gives the probate court your instructions on who will care for your children, if something happens to both you and your spouse. A will also should name a guardian to be responsible for the children. Parents also should think about how they want to share their personal belongings and financial assets. Without a will, the state of California decides what goes to whom. Lastly, a will must name an executor to carry out your wishes.
  2. Beneficiaries. Review your beneficiary designations when you create your will, because you don’t want your will and designations (on life insurance policies and investments) telling two different stories. If there’s an issue, the beneficiary designation overrides the will. All accounts with a beneficiary listed automatically avoid probate court.
  3. Trust. Created by an experienced estate planning attorney, a trust has some excellent benefits, particularly if you have young children. Everything in a trust is shielded from probate court, including property. This avoids court fees and hassle. A trust also provides some flexibility and customization to your plan. You can instruct that your children get a sum of money at 18, 25 or 30, and you can say that the money is for school, among other conditions. The trustee will distribute funds, according to your instructions.
  4. Power of Attorney and Advance Health Care Directive. These are two separate documents, but they’re both used in the event of incapacitation. Their power of attorney for finance and health care directive designees can make important financial and medical decisions when you’re incapable of doing so.
  5. Life Insurance. Most people don’t think about purchasing life insurance, until they have children. Therefore, if you haven’t thought about it, you’re not alone. If you are among the few who bought a policy pre-child, consider increasing the amount so your child is covered, if something should happen.

Reference: ThinkAdvisor (March 7, 2019) “5 Legacy Planning Basics for New Parents”