Beginning-of-Year Financial Tasks

There are some tasks that, if left undone, can have an enormous impact on those you love. The beginning of the year is a good time to set some deadlines for yourself, while you still have New Years resolution momentum. Give yourself a February 15 deadline, and you’ll stay focused says The Daily Journal’s article “5 financial tasks you should tackle by year-end.”

Here’s the list to get you started:

Check Your Beneficiaries on All Accounts. A sad story comes from Washington state, where a man died two months after his divorce was finalized. He had not changed his beneficiaries, so all of his life insurance proceeds and his pension plan went to his ex-wife, and not to his children from a prior marriage. The case went through the court system all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in 2001 that the beneficiary designations had to be honored.

Start by making a list of your accounts, then check to see who your beneficiaries are. You may need to contact the financial custodian of the accounts, or you might be able to do it online. Ask for confirmation in all cases, so you and your heirs will have it in writing. Keep this in an organized binder so it will be easy to find if something were to happen to you.

Look at Any Pay-On-Death Designations. In some accounts, there is a pay-on-death designation, in place of a beneficiary designation. This also may have been an option that you chose when you first opened the account. Without a designation or Pay-On-Death name, the account must go through probate, the legal procedure to distribute property in your estate.

Depending on the state, you might have had this option on the property or even vehicles. A local estate planning attorney will know if this is an option in your state. To add or change a beneficiary on a vehicle, you’ll need to apply for a certificate of car ownership with the beneficiary form. If you want to change your deed to a Transfer-on-Death deed, you will need to submit a new deed to the appropriate county recorder. Again, an estate planning attorney will be able to help. The lawyer will also help evaluate whether this is a good way to transfer property in your situation.

Update Insurance Policies. The insurance company is not going to send a beneficiary a check without someone filing a claim. The family often does not know what insurance policies exist. A 2013 investigation from Consumer Reports found nearly $1 billion in unclaimed life insurance proceeds. You want to update your contact information with the insurer every now and then, making sure that your beneficiaries are correct and that bills are being sent to the right address. In some cases, the insurance company allows people to notify another person if payment is overdue and they are not able to reach you. You should also keep that contact information updated, in case your back-up person moves. Keep a list of your insurance policies in a place easy to find.

What’s In Your Safe Deposit Box? If it’s been a while since you’ve visited your safe deposit box, schedule a time to go and have a look. If you neglect to pay your annual fee, after a number of years the bank is legally permitted to open the box and turn its contents over to the state. Visit once a year to make sure payments and contact details are current. Leave clear instructions with your executor and heirs about where to find the box and its keys. Consider giving another family member official access to the box.

Revise Powers of Attorney. Now is a good time to review your powers of attorney to see if it’s time for an update. If you can’t locate your original POA documents, or if the people you chose many years ago have died or moved away, it’s time for a new set. And if you don’t have power of attorney documents in place, make an appointment with your estate planning lawyer to have them created. Spare your family the stress, lost time, and unnecessary expenses that trying to get access to your accounts might cause by having these updated and name a backup agent (or two).

Yes, technically this article was for the end of the year, but we are a long way from the end of 2020 and I have a feeling that these tasks weren’t on any of your holiday ‘to-dos’ or end of year lists.  Heck, even if you did set yourself a deadline to complete these tasks before the end of the year that would be fantastic.

Reference: The Daily Journal (Nov. 18, 2019) “5 financial tasks you should tackle by year-end”

Managing an Aging Parent’s Financial and Legal Life

Managing an Aging Parent’s Financial and Legal Life
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As parents age, it becomes more important for their children or another trusted adult to start helping them with their finances and their legal documents, especially an estate plan. In “Six tips for managing an elderly parent’s finances,” ABC7 On Your Side presents the important tasks that need to be done.

Make sure the family knows where important personal and financial documents are in an emergency. Start with a list that includes:

  • Bank, brokerage and credit card statements
  • Original wills, powers of attorney, healthcare directives, and estate planning documents
  • Insurance policies
  • Social Security information
  • Pension records
  • Medicare information

They’ll need a list of all accounts, safe deposit boxes, financial institutions and contact information for their estate planning attorney, CPA and financial advisors. Even if they don’t want to share this information until an emergency occurs, make sure it is organized and compiled somewhere a family member can find it easily.

Set up direct deposit for any incoming funds. Automating the deposit of pension and benefit checks is far more secure and convenient for everyone. This prevents a delay in funds being deposited and checks can’t be stolen in the mail or lost at home.

Set up automatic bill payment or at least online bill payment. Making these payments automatic will save a lot of time and energy for all concerned. If your parents are not comfortable with an automatic payment, and many are not, try setting up the accounts so they can be paid online. Work with your parents, so they are comfortable with doing this. They will appreciate how much easier it is and saving themselves a trip to the post office.

Have a “Durable Power of Attorney” prepared. This is a legal document prepared by an estate planning attorney that gives one or more people the legal authority to handle finances or other legal matters if they become mentally or physically incapacitated.

Have a “Living Will” and a “Healthcare Power of Attorney” prepared. The Healthcare Power of Attorney allows a person to make health care decisions for another person if they are mentally or physically incapacitated. The Living Will allows a person to express their wishes about end-of-life care if they are terminally ill and unable to express their wishes.

Take precautions to guard against fraud. Seniors are the chief targets of many scams for two reasons: First, if they have any kind of cognitive decline, no matter how slight, they are more likely to comply with a person posing as an authority figure. Second, they have a lifetime of assets and are a “rich” target.

An estate planning attorney can work with your parents to assist in preparing an estate plan and advising the family on how to help their parents as they age. Most estate planning attorneys have access to a large network of related service providers.

Reference: ABC7 On Your Side (Sep. 5, 2019) “Six tips for managing an elderly parent’s finances,”

The Biggest Estate Planning Errors

The Biggest Estate Planning Errors
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Nobody likes to plan for events like aging, incapacity, or death. However, failing to do so can cause families burdens and grief, thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours. Fox Business’ recent article, “Here are the top estate planning mistakes to avoid,” says that planning for life’s unexpected events is critical. However, it can often be a hard process to navigate. Let’s look at the top estate planning mistakes to avoid, according to industry experts:

1. Failing to have a will (or one that can be located). The biggest mistake is simply not having a will. Many people wait for “a more appropriate time” to put a will together. The truth is, we all need estate planning, no matter the amount of assets a person may have. In addition to having a will prepared and executed, it needs to be findable. The Wall Street Journal says that the biggest estate planning error is simply losing a will. Make sure your family has access to any estate planning documents you create.

2. Failing to name and update beneficiaries. An asset with a beneficiary designation supersedes any terms in a will. Review your 401(k), IRA, life insurance, and any other accounts with beneficiaries after any significant life event. If you don’t have the proper beneficiary designations, income tax on retirement accounts may have to be paid sooner and your heirs will have to pay a lump sum tax immediately. Without a life insurance policy, the proceeds will have to go through probate, which means they are subject to creditors’ claims.

Another mistake that impacts people with minor children is naming a guardian for minor children and then naming the guardian as the outright beneficiary of their life insurance. If money is left to the guardian, then the proceeds are now considered the assets of the guardian and do not transfer to the minors. The cash also now faces exposure to the creditors and spouse of the guardian named as a beneficiary Instead, parents should leave the money to a trust for the children and name the guardian, or another trusted and responsible person, as the trustee of the trust.

3. Failing to consider powers of attorney for adult children. When your children reach age 18, they’re adults in the eyes of the law. If something unfortunate happens to them, you may be left without any say in their treatment or even access to their medical records. In the event that an 18-year-old becomes ill or has an accident, a hospital won’t consult with their parents if a power of attorney for health care isn’t in place. Further, without a financial power of attorney, a parent may not be able to take care of bills, make investment decisions or pay taxes without the child’s signature. This could create an issue when your child is in college—especially if he or she is attending school abroad. It is very important that when your child turns 18 that you have powers of attorney put into place.

Reference: Fox Business (October 15, 2019) “Here are the top estate planning mistakes to avoid”

Why Do I Need a Power of Attorney?

People often wonder why they would need a Power of Attorney, also known as a POA.

Fed Week’s article, “Giving Someone the Power of Attorney,” uses the example that you might suffer a stroke with no prior warning signals and be unable to sign your name. This could mean serious financial consequences. However, executing a POA can protect you in that kind of situation.

It’s important for just about everyone to have a POA. You can name more than one attorney-in-fact, stipulating if they are permitted to act alone or if they must act in concert.

Of course, the individual you designate must be someone you trust. This is typically a close (albeit younger) member of the family or a close friend. You might nominate both of your children as attorneys-in-fact, requiring that they agree to act on your behalf under a power of attorney.

If desired, you can assign different responsibilities to different individuals. For instance, you can name your spouse to make your housing decisions and your son to manage all your financial affairs.

You may not want to give power over your assets to a family member, while you’re still in command of your faculties (or have capacity). To address this, many states recognize what are called springing powers of attorney. These powers do not become effective until specified events take place, like incompetency (certified by a doctor) or when you go into a nursing home.

If your state doesn’t recognize springing powers, you often can see the same result with a durable power of attorney that’s accompanied by a letter saying that the power will go into effect, if certain events occur. For example, in Florida, contingent or “springing” powers of attorney are not permitted after legislation was passed in 2011.

Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney in your state, who can help you understand the type of POA your state laws allow. He or she can also keep these signed documents until they’re needed. Your attorney will also know if the law also provides that powers of attorney properly executed under the laws of another state are recognized in your state of residence.

Reference: Fed Week (October 3, 2019) “Giving Someone the Power of Attorney”

Estate Planning Is for Everyone, at Every Age

As we go through the many milestones of life, it’s important to plan for what we know is coming. Equally important is planning for the unexpected. An estate planning attorney works with individuals, families, and businesses to plan for what lies ahead, says the Cincinnati Business Courier in the article “Estate planning considerations for every stage of life.” For younger families, having an estate plan is like having life insurance: it is hoped that the insurance is never needed, but having it in place is comforting.

For others, in different stages of life, an estate plan is needed to ensure a smooth transition for a business owner heading to retirement, protecting a spouse or children from creditors or minimizing tax liability for a family.

Here are some milestones in life when an estate plan is needed:

Becoming an adult. It is true that for most 18-year-olds, estate planning is the last thing on their minds. However, most states consider these people to be legal adults, and their parents no longer automatically control many things in their lives. If parents want or need to be involved with medical or financial matters, certain estate planning documents are needed. All new adults need a general power of attorney and health care directives to allow someone else to step in if something occurs.

That can be as minimal as a parent talking with a doctor during an office appointment or making medical decisions during a crisis. A HIPAA release should also be prepared. A simple will should be considered, especially if assets are to pass directly to siblings or a significant person in their life, to whom they are not married.

Getting married. Marriage unites individuals and their assets. For newly married couples, estate planning documents should be updated for each spouse. Marriage often means two individuals will merge their estate plans, so documents need to reflect this. A review of their accounts and assets is also good to make sure the new spouse becomes a joint owner, primary beneficiary, and initial fiduciary. In addition to the legal documents of wills, powers of attorney, healthcare directives, something else that needs to be updated to the name of the new spouse or trust are beneficiary designations. This is also a time to start keeping a list of assets, now that someone else may need to access accounts.

When children join the family. Whether born or adopted, the entrance of children into the family makes an estate plan especially important. Choosing guardians who will raise the children in the absence of their parents is the hardest thing to think about, but it is critical for the children’s well-being. A nomination of guardian can make the transition smoother and prevent unnecessary delays in the court system during an already difficult time. A revocable trust may be a means of allowing the seamless transfer and ongoing administration of the family’s assets to benefit the children and other family members.

Part of business planning. Estate planning should be part of every business owner’s plan. If the unexpected occurs, the business will benefit from advance planning by having a set of procedures in place. The owner’s family will also be better off, regardless of whether they are involved in the business. At the very least, business interests should be directed to transfer out of probate, allowing for an efficient transition of the business to the right people without the burden of probate estate administration.

If a divorce occurs. Divorce is a sad reality for more than half of today’s married couples. The post-divorce period is the time to review the estate plan to remove the ex-spouse, change any beneficiary designations, and plan for new fiduciaries. It’s important to review all accounts to ensure that any controlling-on-death accounts are updated. A careful review by an estate planning attorney is worth the time to make sure no assets are overlooked.

Upon retirement. Just before or after retirement is an important time to review an estate plan. Children may be grown and take on roles of fiduciaries or be in a position to help with medical or financial affairs. This is the time to plan for wealth transfer, minimizing estate taxes, and planning for incapacity.

Reference: Cincinnati Business Courier (Sep. 4, 2019) “Estate planning considerations for every stage of life.”

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?”

Am I Too Young to Think About Estate Planning?

It’s wise for younger generations to consider estate planning early, advises The Cleveland Jewish News in the recent article “Younger generations should focus on estate planning, too.” Don’t be fooled into thinking that an estate plan is only for older people or the ultra-wealthy. In fact, there are many younger adults who may need it, especially if they have been financially successful and also have experienced changes with marriage and families.

This is especially important for young people who are in committed relationships. A young married couple should talk together about their vision and goals for their financial, health, and legal affairs, in case something happens to one of them or within their families.

Estate plans provide some certainty in an otherwise uncertain life. There are many reasons to start early. One reason is that you never know what’s going to happen. You want to make certain that all of your assets are in place.

When creating an estate plan, there are a few things that younger people should consider, such as making sure all their accounts have named a beneficiary. This includes life insurance, retirement, and checking and savings accounts. These beneficiaries need to be reviewed on an ongoing basis and updated for life and family changes.

Many younger adults will be fine with just a will, a financial power of attorney, and a health care power of attorney. However, marriage is a time when people begin to have more complexity in their professional lives. This can include starting a business or becoming leaders at companies and that may require more complex and protective plans.

While younger generations are known to be independent and to try to meet all their needs online, estate plans should be treated differently. There are numerous online tools or ‘do-it-yourself’ strategies, but professional legal assistance can make it an easier and a more thorough process. Remember, when you meet with an attorney, you are not just getting the papers; you are also receiving their guidance and expertise, crafted to address the needs of your specific situation.

Start as early as you can and set the foundation for more complex planning that will come in the future. This preparation will mean less stress for those left behind after you pass away.

Reference: Cleveland Jewish News (September 19, 2019) “Younger generations should focus on estate planning, too”

Spare Family Fights: Make a Will

Thinking about your own mortality can be something frightening that many people would rather not do, which makes something like creating a will a difficult thing to do. But if for no other reason than to avoid fracturing the family, everyone needs a will. Otherwise, the family might end up spending all their time fighting over who gets Aunt Nina’s sideboard or Uncle Bruno’s collection of baseball cards.

But whether we want to think about it or not, having an estate plan in place – and that includes a will – is a gift of peace we can give to our loved ones and ourselves. It’s peace of mind that our family is being told exactly what we want them to do after we pass, and peace of mind to ourselves that we’ve put our plan into place.

A recent article from Fatherly, “How to Write a Will: 8 Tips Every Parent Needs to Know,” starts with the basic premise that a will prevents family squabbles. Families fight when they don’t have a clear direction of what the deceased wanted. That’s just one reason to have a last will and testament. However, there are other reasons.

A will is one way to ensure that your property is eventually distributed as you wish. Without a will, your estate is administered as an “intestate estate,” which means the state’s laws will determine who receives your assets after you pass. In some states, that means your spouse gets half of your estate, with your parents getting the rest (if there are no children). If the parents have died and there are no children, the rest of the estate may go to your siblings.

Most people—some studies say as many as 60% of Americans—don’t have a will. It’s hard to say why they don’t: maybe they don’t want to accept the possibility of their own death, maybe they don’t understand what will happen when they die without a will, or perhaps they want to wreak havoc on their families. However, having a will is essential.

Don’t delay. If you don’t have a will in place, stop putting it off. Creating a will gives you the opportunity to effectuate your wishes, not that of the state. What if you don’t want your long-lost brother showing up just to receive a portion of your estate? If you don’t want someone to receive any of your assets, you need to have a will. Otherwise, there’s no way to know how the distribution will play out.

Not only should you think about who will get your assets, you should also be thoughtful about how you distribute your assets. If you have children and your will gives them your assets when they reach 18, will they be prepared to manage without blowing their inheritance in a month? A qualified estate planning attorney will be able to help you create a plan for distributing your wealth to children or other heirs in a way that will match their financial abilities. You may want to create a trust that will hold the assets, with a trustee who can ensure that assets are distributed in a wise and timely manner.

Every family is different, and today’s families, which often include children from prior marriages, require special planning. If you have remarried and have not legally adopted your spouse’s children from a previous marriage, they are not your legal heirs. If you want to make sure they inherit money or a specific asset, you’ll need to state that clearly in your will. If you are not married to your partner, they will not have any rights to your estate, unless a will is created that directs the assets you want them to inherit.

The will can also provide reassurance and protection in case you need to appoint a guardian for your children. Because of this, parents of young children absolutely need a will. If you do not and both parents pass away at the same time, their future will be determined by the court. They could end up in foster care while awaiting a court decision. Battling grandparents may create a tumultuous situation with long-lasting and detrimental effects on your children and their relationships with their other family members. The court could also name a guardian who you would never have chosen. A will lets you tell the court what you want.

Speak with an estate planning attorney to make sure you have a will that is properly prepared and follows the laws of your state. You also want to have a power of attorney and a health care agent named. Only if you have these plans in advance can you express your wishes in a way that can be legally enforced when you actually need them.

Reference: Fatherly (Feb. 6, 2019) “How to Write a Will: 8 Tips Every Parent Needs to Know”

How to Choose an Estate Planning Attorney

Estate planning is a critical part of financial planning, but it is something that many Americans prefer to procrastinate about. However, drafting a will, health care proxy, and power of attorney are too important to leave to chance, says Next Avenue in the article “How to Find a Good Estate Planner.” An experienced estate planning attorney can help prevent critical mistakes and help you adjust your plan as circumstances change.

Here are a few tips:

Look for an estate planning attorney. This is not the same as a real estate attorney. An attorney who practices real estate law is not going to be up to date on all of the latest changes to estate and tax laws. You should also determine if the attorney deals with families who are in similar situations as yours. An attorney who works with family-owned businesses, for instance, will be more helpful in creating an estate plan that includes tax and succession planning for small business owners, whereas an attorney who works with special needs trusts will be more informed on drafting those.

Experience matters in this area of the law. The laws of your state are just one of the many parts that the attorney needs to know by heart. The estate planning attorney who has been practicing for many years will have a better sense of how families work, what problems crop up when it comes time to execute these plans, and tips on how to avoid them.

Ask about costs. Don’t be shy. You want to be clear from the start what you should expect to be spending on an estate plan. The attorney should be comfortable having this discussion with you and your spouse or family member. Remember that the attorney will be able to understand the scope of work only after they speak with you about your situation. What may seem simple to you, may be more complicated than you think.

If a trust is added, the fees are likely to increase. A trust can be used to avoid or minimize estate taxes, avoid probate, save on time and court fees and create conditions for the distribution of assets after you die.

A full plan includes incapacity documents. Don’t neglect to have the attorney create a Power of Attorney form and any other advance directives you need. These vary by state, and you don’t want them to get too old, or they may become out of date.

Recognize that this is an ongoing relationship. Make sure that you are comfortable with the attorney, how the practice is run and the people who work there—receptionist, paralegals and other associates at the firm are all people you may be working with at one point or another during the process. You will be sharing very personal information with the entire team, so be sure it’s a good fit.

This is not a one-and-done event. Having an estate plan is a lot like having a home—it requires maintenance. Every four years or so, or when large events occur in your life, you’ll need to have your estate plan reviewed.

Your estate planning attorney should become a trusted advisor who works hand in hand with your accountant and financial advisor. Together, they should all be looking out for you and your family.

Reference: Next Avenue (September 10, 2019) “How to Find a Good Estate Planner”

Leaving a Legacy Is Not Just about Money

A legacy is not necessarily about money, says a survey that was conducted by Bank of America/Merrill Lynch Ave Wave. The study surveyed more than 3,000 adults, with 2600 of them being 50 or older. The study also incorporated focus groups where participants were asked about end-of-life planning and leaving a legacy. The article, “How to leave a legacy no matter how much money you have” from The Voice, shared a number of the participant’s responses.

A total of 94% of those surveyed said that a life well-lived is about “having friends and family that love me.” 75% said that a life well-lived is about having a positive impact on society. A mere 10% said that a life well-lived is about accumulating a lot of wealth.

The study highlights that people want to be remembered for how they lived, not what they did at work or how much money they saved. Nearly 70% said they most wanted to be remembered for the memories they shared with loved ones. And only 9% said career success was something they wanted to be remembered for.

While everyone needs to have their affairs in order, especially people over age 55, only 55% of those surveyed reported having a will. Only 18% have what are considered the three key essentials for legacy planning: a will, a health care directive and a durable power of attorney.

The will addresses how property is to be distributed, names an executor of the estate and, if there are minor children, names who should be their guardian. The health care directive gives specific directions as to end-of-life preferences and designates someone to make health care decisions for you if you can’t. A power of attorney designates someone to make financial decisions on your behalf when you can’t do so because of illness or incapacity.

An estate plan is often only considered when a triggering event occurs, like a loved one dying without an estate plan. This is often a wake-up call for the family once they see how difficult it is when there is no estate plan.

Parents aged 55 and older had interesting views on leaving inheritances and who should receive their estate. Only about a third of boomers surveyed and 44% of Gen Xers said that it’s a parent’s duty to leave some kind of inheritance to their children. A higher percentage of millennials surveyed—55%—said that this was a duty of parents to their children.

The biggest surprise of the survey: 65% of people 55 and older reported that they would prefer to give away some of their money while they are still alive. A mere 8% wanted to give away all their assets, before they died. Only 27% wanted to give away all their money after they died.

Reference: The Voice (June 16, 2019) “How to leave a legacy no matter how much money you have”