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.”

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”

Tips for Choosing a Fiduciary

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One of the important tasks in creating a complete estate plan is selecting people (or financial institutions) to represent you, in case of incapacity or death. Most people think of naming an executor in their will, but there are many more roles, advises the article “What to consider when appointing a fiduciary?” from The Ledger.

Here are the most common roles that an estate planning attorney will ask you to select:

  • Executor or personal representative: a person named in your will and appointed by the court to administer your estate.
  • Agent-in-fact (under a durable power of attorney): a person who manages your financial affairs while you are living, if you are unable to do so.
  • Health care surrogate or agent: a person who makes health care decisions on your behalf while you are living, if you are incapacitated.
  • Trustee of a trust document: administers the trust that you have created.
  • Guardian or conservator: a person who makes health care and financial decisions on your behalf, if the court determines that other roles, like health care surrogate or agent-in-fact, are not sufficient.
  • Guardian for minor children: person(s) who make decisions for your children, if you are not able to because of death or a loss of capacity before the children reach adulthood.

The individuals or financial institutions who take on financial roles are considered fiduciaries; that is, they have a legal duty to put your well-being first. Their responsibilities may include applying for government benefits, managing and invest your assets and income, deciding where you will live, working with your attorneys, financial advisors, and accountants.

Many people name their spouse or eldest child to take on these roles. However, that’s not the only option. A few questions to consider before making this important decision include:

  • Does this person have the experience, skill, and maturity to manage my financial affairs?
  • Does this person have the time to serve as a fiduciary?
  • Would this person make the same health care decisions that I would make?
  • Can this person make a difficult decision for my health care?
  • Does this person live near enough to arrive quickly, if necessary?
  • How old is this person, and will they be living when I may need them?
  • What kind of response will my family have to this person being named?
  • Are my assets substantial enough to require a financial institution or accountant to manage?

These are just a few of the questions to consider when choosing fiduciaries or health care agents in your estate plan. Speak with your estate planning attorney to help determine the best decision for you and your family.

Reference: The Ledger (Oct. 16, 2019) “What to consider when appointing a fiduciary?”

Second Marriages Need A Plan to Protect Children and New Spouses

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There are a number of issues in estate planning that are more important in second and subsequent marriages, as discussed in the article “Estate planning documents for second marriages” from the Cleveland Jewish News. A couple who each have children from a prior marriage are planning to marry again and blend their families. Consequently, the couple needs to address income taxes, a prenuptial agreement, pension and 401(k) benefits, Social Security, college funding, cost-sharing, and estate planning documents.

Here’s an example of how important estate planning is for blended families. A couple who each have children from their prior marriages get married. Twenty years later, the husband dies. He had wanted to provide for his second wife, so his will stated that all his assets went to his wife. They had the understanding that on her death, those assets would go back to his children.

What actually occurred was that his wife lived a long time after he passed, and she simply combined their assets. When she died, the money went to her children, and her husband’s children received nothing. The husband’s children didn’t believe that he meant to do that, but because of the lack of planning, that’s exactly what happened.

What were the alternatives? He could have set up a marital trust that would have held the assets for his second wife on his death, but upon the wife’s passing, would have gone back to his children. The trust document could prohibit the wife from transferring the assets in the marital trust to her children, and instead, guarantee that any assets remaining at her death would go to his children.

It’s wonderful to have a verbal agreement with your spouse, but if you don’t set up a formal legal plan, there’s no way to be sure that assets will be distributed as intended.

Another way to ensure that children from a blended family receive what they are intended is to have an independent person or entity, like a bank or a trust company, oversee a marital trust.

Other important documents include a durable financial power of attorney, durable health care power of attorney and a living will declaration.

Just as important as remarriage, anyone who has been divorced needs to review their estate planning documents to ensure that they reflect their new marital status, especially when they marry again. That is also the time to review beneficiary designations that appear on insurance policies, 401(k)s, pensions, retirement accounts, and investment accounts.

There’s no “set it and forget” plan for estate documents, so before you walk down the aisle a second time, or shortly after you do so, speak with an estate planning attorney to clarify your goals and put them into the appropriate estate planning documents.

Reference: Cleveland Jewish News (May 7, 2019) “Estate planning documents for second marriages”

What is a Durable Power of Attorney?

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Those who have heard of a power of attorney generally understand that it gives another person the power to manage your money, but how does it work exactly? A durable power of attorney document must follow the statutory requirements, must delegate proper authority, must consider the timing of when the agent may act and a host of other issues that must be addressed, warns My San Antonio in the article “Guide to managing someone else’s money.” A durable power of attorney document can be so far-reaching that a form downloaded from the Internet is asking for major trouble.

Start by speaking with an experienced estate planning attorney to provide proper advice and draft a legally valid document that is appropriate for your situation.

Once a proper durable power of attorney has been drafted, talk with the agent you have selected and with the successor agents, you want to name, about their roles and responsibilities. For instance:

When will the agent’s power commence? Depending on the document, it may start immediately, or it may not become active until the person becomes incapacitated.

If the power is postponed, how will the agent prove that the person has become incapacitated? Will he or she need to go to court?

What is the extent of the agent’s authority? This is very important. Do you want the agent to be able to talk with the IRS about your taxes? With your investment advisor? Will the agent have the power to make gifts on your behalf, and to what extent? May the agent set up a trust for your benefit? Can the agent change beneficiary designations? What about caring for your pets? Can they talk with your lawyer or accountant?

When does the agent’s authority end? Unless the document sets an earlier date, it ends either when you revoke it, when you die, when a court appoints a guardian for you, or, if your agent is your spouse, when you divorce.

What does the agent need to report to you? What are your expectations for the agent’s role? Do you want immediate assistance from the agent, or will you continue to sign documents for yourself?

Does the agent know how to avoid personal exposure? If the agent signs a contract for you by signing his or her own name, the agent is now liable for the contract. Legally, that means that the cost of the services provided could be taken out of the agent’s wallet. Does the agent understand how to sign a contract to avoid personal liability?

All of these questions need to be addressed long before any power of attorney papers are signed. Both you and the agent need to understand the role of a power of attorney. An experienced estate planning attorney will be able to explore all the issues inherent in a durable power of attorney and make sure that it is the correct document.

Reference: My San Antonio Life (Aug. 26, 2019) “Guide to managing someone else’s money”

Graduation Over? Time to Consider Legal Documents

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It is wonderful to bring up children, make sure they are educated, and see that 18th birthday come along. However, it is important to recognize that many things change from a legal standpoint, according to grbj.com in “Give your graduate the gift of legal documents.”

Before your child turned 18, authorities and institutions automatically deferred to you in case your child could not speak or act for him or herself. This is no longer the case after they turn 18, when you no longer have automatic access to medical, financial, and educational information about your child. In addition, you are no longer authorized to make medical or financial decisions, even if they are injured or incapacitated.

Here are recommended steps to take so parents can still be involved in their children’s lives when they are needed in case of emergency, illness, or incapacity:

In Case of Emergency Contact. Make sure you, or another trusted adult, is listed as an ICE (“in case of emergency”) contact on your child’s cell phone. ICE contacts can be accessed by medical personnel without the password to unlock the phone.

Health care proxy/medical power of attorney. Even if you are the person paying for your children’s health insurance, you are not legally permitted to make decisions for them. Have your newly adult child sign a proxy/power of attorney form for health care designating who has the primary authority to make health decisions if he or she is unable to do so. This is especially important when parents are divorced: both parents need to have the proper forms. Your estate planning attorney will be able to prepare these for you.

HIPAA authorization. Medical providers may not disclose a patient’s medical status unless they have legal permission. Your child should sign a HIPAA authorization with each of their providers, giving the parent access to all their information. This is especially necessary for a child with health or mental issues.

Durable power of attorney. If your child has signed a durable power of attorney for finance, you will be able to handle their financial matters. Even though they are young and may not have a lot of assets, they may have bank accounts, credit cards, and rental leases in their name. In this day and age, you should also add power over digital assets to the power of attorney to cover online accounts for financial institutions, schools, and email accounts.

FERPA waivers. This one takes many parents by surprise. Even if you are the one paying for tuition and all college expenses, the college will not provide academic records, including grades and tuition bills, to the parents without permission due to the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act. Contact the college and find out exactly what forms they need to be sure you have access to all of your children’s information, including any health and mental health treatment.

Wills and trusts. If a child has assets and no descendants, they need a will or revocable trust just like any other adult with significant assets. This can serve to protect the size of the parent’s estate for federal tax purposes, and allow them to designate a specific person to manage these assets if they die prematurely.

There are a few other things you may want to go over with your child and discuss with them once they turn 18 to set them up for success:

Medical records. Make sure the child has access to their medical records, including medications, allergies, immunizations, etc.

Insurance. See if the family’s medical, homeowner’s and auto insurance coverage extend to a child living away at school and in another state. If the child is renting a house or apartment, make sure they have renter’s insurance.

Proof of identity. Make sure the child has access to their passport, birth certificate and/or Social Security card so they can get an internship or a job.

Bank accounts and credit cards. If the family’s regular bank does not have a branch where the child is attending school, the parents should consider opening a basic checking account at a local branch. Parents can consider placing both parents and child onto the account.

Registration. It’s time to register to vote and men will need to register with Selective Service within 30 days of their 18th birthday.

One of the best ways to prepare your child is to go over these topics with them once they reach legal adulthood. Bring your child with you to see an estate planning attorney who can advise you on any additional documents needed for your family.

Reference: grb.com (June 7, 2019) “Give your graduate the gift of legal documents.”

What is an Advance Directive and Do I Need One?

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These are difficult questions to think about. However, they are very important, as every estate planning attorney knows. Should you ever become unable to speak for yourself, reports the Enid News & Eagle in the article “Veteran Connection: What you should know about advance directives,” there is a way to make a plan, so your wishes are known to another person or persons and by legally conveying them in advance, making sure you have a say, even when you don’t have a voice.

The advance directive helps family members and your doctors understand your wishes about medical care. The wishes you express through these two documents described below, require reflection on values, beliefs, views on medical treatments, quality of life during intense medical care and may even touch on spiritual beliefs.

The goal is to prepare so your wishes are followed, when you are no longer able to express them. This can include situations like end-of-life care, the use of a respirator to breathe for you, or who you want to be in the room with you, when you are near death.

It should be noted that an advance directive also includes a mental health component, that extends to making decisions on your behalf when there are mental health issues, not just physical issues.

There are two types of documents: a durable power of attorney for health care and a living will.

The durable power of attorney for health care lets you name a person you trust to make health care decisions when you cannot make them for yourself. This person is called your health care agent and will have the legal right to make these decisions. If you don’t have this in place, your doctor will decide who should speak for you. They may rely on order of relationships: a legal guardian, spouse, adult child, parent, sibling, grandparent, grandchild or a close friend.

A living will is a document that communicates what kind of health care you want, if you become ill and cannot make decisions for yourself. This helps your named person and your doctor make decisions about your care that align with your own wishes.

Another very important part of this issue: the conversation with the people who you want to be on hand when these decisions have to be made. Are they willing to serve in this capacity? Can they make the hard decisions, especially if it’s what you wanted and not what they would want? Do you want a spouse to make these decisions on your behalf? Many people do that, but you may have a trusted family member or friend you would prefer, if you feel that your spouse will be too overwhelmed to follow your wishes.

Reference: Enid News & Eagle (March 13, 2019) “Veteran Connection: What you should know about advance directives”

 

Are You Ready to Retire? These Professionals Can Help

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Are you thinking about retiring in 2019 or 2020? Do you know if you are ready to retire? It seems like a simple concept: Just pick a month, run some numbers and turn off your weekly early morning wake-up alarm. However, it’s not that simple. According to an article titled “Professionals can ease a person into retirement” from the Cleveland Jewish News, most people need some help for both financial and non-financial planning.

A good place to start is with the financial side. Take inventory of all your assets to identify where you have assets and where you have liabilities. You’ll need to be brutally honest with yourself and your spouse. Are there gaps? Is your credit card debt bigger than you thought? Use this exercise to get a real sense of whether you can retire this year.

Next, take care of the legal aspects of retirement. You’ll need a will (and possibly a trust), durable power of attorney, and an advance healthcare directive. The financial and medical POAs will give someone the legal authority to make financial and medical decisions for you, if you become incapacitated. If you already have a will but have not reviewed it in three or four years, it’s time for a review. Laws change, lives change, and what may have worked well for you and your family when the will was first created, may not work now. You’ll want to work with an estate planning attorney to create a plan, making sure assets are properly aligned with your estate plan and minimizing any tax liability for your heirs.

This is also the time to consider how you’ll pay for long-term care. Do you have a long-term care insurance policy in place? Speak with a reputable insurance agent, or if you don’t know one, ask your trusted advisors to make a recommendation. People don’t like to think about going into a nursing home for an extended period of time, but it happens often enough that it makes sense to have this type of insurance. It’s not cheap—but neither is paying out-of-pocket for care at a nursing facility.

When you’ll retire, and what you’ll do with your retirement years, which could last two or even three decades, is a big question. The answer may be based on your finances—can you realistically stop working full time, or do you need to continue to work for a few more years? Would part-time work fill any savings gaps? These are questions that can’t be answered, without a thorough financial analysis of your retirement income.

If you stop working, what will you do? Some experts advise asking a bigger question: Who are you, now that your work identity is gone? If you’ve planned well, or if you’re lucky, your retirement can be a time of great fulfillment, spending time with family, volunteering in the community and devoting time to taking better care of yourself. For some people, retirement from one career is an opportunity to spring into a new career, one that they’ve always put to the side, in order to earn a paycheck.

How much you can achieve of your dreams, depends on putting down a solid foundation of legal and financial resources. An estate planning attorney and a financial advisor are important members of your retirement success team.

Reference: Cleveland Jewish News (Jan. 9, 2019) “Professionals can ease a person into retirement”