How Does Power of Attorney Work?

Questions often arise about how different estate planning documents work together, and they are frequently very good questions. Powers of Attorney (POA) are some of the most commonly used estate planning documents and they are also some of the most misunderstood estate planning documents, says nwi.com in a recent article “Estate Planning: Do Powers of Attorney lapse?”

A POA is a document that authorizes another person to act on behalf of the person making or signing the document. The person named in a POA can also be referred to as the Attorney-in-Fact, or AIF. The authority granted to the AIF is usually spelled out in the document itself. Some POA documents grant a wide range of authority, while others are limited to a specific action. An estate planning attorney can create a POA that suits a person’s particular needs, which is far better than a generic document that may not be accepted because it is too broad.

There are also different types of POAs. Durable POAs usually do not terminate upon a person’s incapacity and are frequently drafted for the purpose of caring for a person in case they are incapacitated. There are also other limited or special POAs that only work for a specific date or time frame. At the end of that time frame or upon that date, the POA terminates.

It’s important to note, however, that all POAs terminate upon the death of the maker or principal. The only power that can survive after the death of the maker is the authority to dispose of the maker’s remains, and that varies by state. This means that the POA will not nominate an executor, and cannot do anything to give someone authority over your body or your property after you die.

A POA can also be terminated at any time by the principal. This termination should be in writing, and it can be terminated by revoking the POA within the terms of a new POA, or by execution of a revocation. Either way, the person should notify the AIF that they no longer have the authority to act under the revoked POA, and any entity who may have a copy of the revoked POA should be notified that it is no longer valid. The revocation can also be recorded at the county recorder’s office. An estate planning attorney in your state will know what rules apply in your area.

When a POA was created is also important. Although a POA signed years ago is still legally valid, estate planning attorneys often look at the date of execution for the simple fact that banks and other financial institutions are reluctant to accept POAs that were created too long ago. In that case, institutions sometimes will require an affidavit affirming that the document is still valid and that the AIF has the authority to act under it.

However, it is recommended that when you have your estate plan reviewed every three or four years, you also have your estate planning attorney update the Power of Attorney. This way there is less of a chance that a bank or other institution will balk at the document. The same goes for your health care proxy, also known as a Health Care Power of Attorney.

Reference: nwi.com (November 3, 2019) “Estate Planning: Do Powers of Attorney lapse?”

Second Marriages Need A Plan to Protect Children and New Spouses

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”

Prior Planning for Catasrophes

None of us know what kind of unexpected surprises will occur in our lives. We’d like to believe they will all be happy events, like winning the big Power Ball jackpot. However, unpleasant things like illness or a flood or fire often occur. We never think it will happen to us, says The Dalles Chronicle’s article “Prepare now for emergencies.” Unfortunately, these things do happen, and when they do, being prepared can make all the difference between a stressful situation and a really awful situation that could have been made, well, less awful.

For starters, have you met with an estate planning attorney to create a comprehensive estate plan that includes a will or trust, a financial power of attorney and a health care power of attorney? The will/trust concerns distribution of your possessions and property, the power of attorney gives a trusted person the ability to take financial and legal actions on your behalf in the event that you become incapacitated, and the medical power of attorney allows someone to make health care decisions for you if you become incapacitated. There are also many other tools that an estate planning attorney can help you with, such as a Special Needs Trust, if your family includes a family member with special needs, or other trusts if they are needed.

Next, your emergency preparations should include having important documents assembled in a notebook, on a memory stick and/or a safe location. Imagine there was an emergency evacuation and you had to leave your home immediately. What documents would you need? Here’s a helpful checklist to look at:

  • Contact information for family members, doctors, attorneys, dentist, insurance broker, financial advisor.
  • Cash, so if ATMs are not working, you will have cash on hand.
  • Identification documents, including originals of your birth certificate, marriage license, divorce papers, passport, Social Security card, health insurance cards (or Medicare or Medicaid cards).
  • A video of your home and all of your possessions on your mobile phone. Consider emailing it to a family member or friend who lives in a different location.
  • Insurance policies for home, auto, disability, long-term care, etc. Include contact information for either 800-numbers or your local agent, if you need to file a claim.
  • A copy of recent financial statements for credit cards, banks, brokerage firms, retirement accounts, car loans, mortgage and similar types of accounts.
  • Copies of the last three years of tax returns. If you work with a CPA, they should have them on a secure portal, but a hard copy will be useful to have.
  • Legal documents for your estate plan, including the will, power of attorney and health care power of attorney, as described above.
  • Other legal documents, including car registration, car title and property deed to your home.

These documents should all be organized in a folder that is placed in your home where you and your spouse know where it is and can grab it on your way out the door.

One more item that should be noted in this digital age: if you use a laptop or tablet that contains websites that you use frequently for personal finance, investments, etc., be mindful of its location in the house, so you can grab it (along with a charger cable) quickly. If you have passwords for accounts—and most of us do—you should print them out and include them in your file folder for easy access. You can almost always re-set a password, but how much easier will rebuilding your life be if you have them on hand?

If you do ever face a catastrophic emergency, having these materials will save you hours of time and stress.

Reference: The Dalles Chronicle (July 16, 2019) “Prepare now for emergencies”

Family Meetings and Trustworthy Siblings Needed to Help Aging Parents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kids Grown Up? Protect Them with These Three Documents

Without the right documents in place, you do not have the legal right to protect your own children, once they turn 18, says The National Law Review in an unsettling but must-read article titled “Three Critical Legal Documents Every Parent Should Get in Place Now to Safeguard Their Adult Children.”

There are only three documents and they are fairly straightforward. There is no reason not to have them in place. If your adult child was incapacitated by an accident or an illness, you would want to speak with the medical staff to find out how they are and what decisions need to be made. Whether you were making a phone call or arriving at the hospital, a nurse or doctor would not be permitted to speak with you about your own adult child’s condition or be involved with making any medical decisions.

It sounds unreasonable, and perhaps it is, but that is the law. There are steps you can take to ensure that you are not in this situation.

HIPAA Authorization Form gives you the authority to speak with healthcare providers. This is a federal law (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) that safeguards who can access an adult’s private health data. HIPAA prevents healthcare providers from revealing any information to you or anyone else about a patient’s status. The practitioners could face severe penalties for violating HIPAA.

This is why you want to have a HIPAA authorization signed by your adult child and naming you as an authorized recipient.  This will give you the ability to ask for and receive information about your child’s health status, progress and treatment. This is especially important, if your child is unconscious or in an unresponsive state. The alternative? Going to court. That’s not what you want to be doing during a health emergency.

A Healthcare Power of Attorney needs to be in place, so you can be named their “medical agent” and have the ability to view their medical records and make informed decisions on their behalf. Without this (or a court-appointed guardianship), healthcare decisions will be in the hands of healthcare providers only. That’s not a bad thing, if you implicitly trust your child’s doctor. However, if your child is incapacitated in an out-of-town hospital with healthcare providers you don’t know, you will want to be able to make decisions on his or her behalf.

Note that physicians prefer a single medical agent, not a handful. The concern is that if time is a critical factor and a group of family members do not agree on care, it may compromise the healthcare services that can be provided. You can name multiple agents in priority order. A mother might be listed as the medical agent, and if she is unable or unwilling to serve, the second person would be the father.

The third document is a General Power of Attorney. This would give you the right to make financial decisions on your child’s behalf, if they were to become incapacitated. You would have the legal right to manage bank accounts, pay bills, sign tax returns, apply for government benefits, break or apply a lease and conduct activities on behalf of your child. Without this document, you won’t be able to help your child without a court-appointed conservatorship.

Keep in mind that these documents need to be updated every few years. If you try to use an older document, the bank or hospital may not accept them. Your adult child also has the ability to revoke these documents at any time, just by saying they revoke them or by putting it in writing. If you have an adult child living out of state, you want to have these documents prepared for your home state and their state of residence.

Finally, this is not a time to download forms and hope for the best. An estate planning attorney will know more specifically what forms are used in your state and help you make sure that they are prepared correctly.

Reference: The National Law Review (Feb. 11, 2019) “Three Critical Legal Documents Every Parent Should Get in Place Now to Safeguard Their Adult Children”