What Do I Do If I’m Named Financial Power of Attorney?

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A financial power of attorney (POA) is a document whereby the “principal” appoints a trusted someone known as the “attorney-in-fact” or “agent” to act on behalf of the principal, especially when the principal is incapacitated. It typically permits the attorney-in-fact to pay the principal’s bills, access their accounts, pay their taxes, and buy and sell investments or even real estate. In effect, the attorney-in-fact steps into the shoes of the principal and is able to act for them in all matters, as described in the POA document.

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “What Are the Duties for Financial Powers of Attorney?” says these responsibilities may sound overwhelming, and it’s only natural to feel this way initially. Let’s look at the steps to take to do this important job:

  1. Don’t panic but begin reading. Review the POA document and determine what the principal has given you power to do on their behalf. A POA will typically include information addressed to the agent that explains the legal duties he or she owes to the principal.
  2. See what you have to handle for the principal. Create a list of the principal’s assets and liabilities. If the principle is organized, it’ll be easy. If not, you will need to find their brokerage and bank accounts, 401(k)s/IRAs/403(b)s, the mortgage, taxes, insurance, and other bills (utilities, phone, cable, and internet).
  3. Protect the principal’s property. Be sure the principal’s home is secure and make a video inventory of the home. If it looks like your principal will be incapacitated for an extended period of time, you may cancel the phone and newspaper subscriptions. You may need to change the locks on the principal’s home. If you have control of the principal’s investments and their incapacitation may continue for a long time, review their brokerage statements for high-risk positions that you don’t understand, like options, puts and calls, or commodities. Get advice on liquidating positions you don’t have the know-how to handle.
  4. Pay all bills, as necessary. Look at your principal’s bills and credit card statements for potential fraud. Perhaps you should suspend their credit cards that you won’t be using on the principal’s behalf. Note that they may have bills automatically paid by credit card and plan accordingly.
  5. Pay the taxes. Many powers of attorney give the agent the power to pay the principal’s taxes. If so, you’ll be responsible for filing and paying taxes during the principal’s lifetime. If the principal passes away, the executor of the principal’s last will is responsible for preparing any final taxes.
  6. Keep meticulous records. Track every expenditure you make and every action you take on the principal’s behalf. You’ll be asked to demonstrate that you have upheld your duties and acted in the principal’s best interests. It will also be important for you to receive reimbursement for expenses, and (if the power of attorney provides for it) the time you spent acting as agent.

Finally, you must always act in the principal’s best interest.

Reference: Kiplinger (April 22, 2020) “What Are the Duties for Financial Powers of Attorney?”

You Can Complete Your Estate Plan During the Coronavirus Quarantine

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The coronavirus lockdown is happening in many states, following the lead of California, Illinois, Florida and New York. Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “How to Get Your Estate Plan Done While Under Coronavirus Quarantine” says that these isolation orders create unique issues with your ability to effectively establish or modify your estate plan.

The core documents for an estate plan are intended to oversee the management and distribution of your assets after you pass or in the event, you are incapacitated. Each document has requirements that must be met to be legally effective. Let’s look at some of these documents. Note that there is proposed federal legislation that would permit remote online notarization, and Illinois and New York have passed orders to allow notarization utilizing audiovisual technology.

Will. Every state has its own legal requirements for a will to be valid, and most require disinterested witnesses. Some states, like California, permit a will, otherwise requiring the signature of witnesses, to be valid with clear and convincing evidence of your intent for the will to be valid. An affidavit indicating that the will was signed as a result of the emergency conditions caused by the COVID-19 virus should satisfy this requirement.

Power of Attorney. This document designates an individual to make financial decisions regarding your assets and financial responsibilities if you’re unable to do so. This can include issues regarding retirement benefits, life, and medical insurance and the ability to continue payments to persons financially dependent on you. The durable general power of attorney is notarized in California.

Advance Health Care Directive. This document states whether you want your life extended by life support systems and if you want extraordinary measures to be taken. It may state that you wish to have a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) in place.

HIPAA Authorization. Some states have their own medical privacy laws with separate requirements, and most powers of attorney provide that the designated persons can act if you’re unable to do so. Financial institutions typically require confirming letters from your doctor that you’re unable to act on your own behalf. To be certain that this agent can act on your behalf if needed, they should be given written access to see your medical information.

During quarantine, these requirements can be fluid and may change quickly. Be sure to work with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: Kiplinger (March 30, 2020) “How to Get Your Estate Plan Done While Under Coronavirus Quarantine”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preparing for an Emergency Includes Power of Attorney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Estate Plan Updates in the Age of Coronavirus

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With the ever-increasing number of deaths in Europe and the U.S., many people are now doing what estate planning attorneys have advised them to do for years—get their estate plans in order. Many are having phone meetings or videoconferences with estate planning attorneys, says Barron’s in the article “The Coronavirus Has Americans Scrambling to Set Their Estate Plans. Here Are Some Key Things to Know.” People are worried, and they are in a hurry too.

However, estate planning can be complex, even when there is plenty of time to prepare. Here are a few tips:

Everyone should have three basic documents: a last will and testament, a durable power of attorney and an advance health care directive. These documents will allow assets to be distributed, give another person the ability to make financial decisions if you are too sick to do so, and also allow another person to talk to medical professionals on your behalf on treatment and care. These same documents are also a good idea for any young adults in the family, anyone older than 18 in most states.

With the proper documents prepared in accordance with the laws of your state, you may be able to avoid having a court appoint a guardian for minor children or having a probate court determine asset distribution.

However, there’s more. In addition to these basic documents, everyone needs to review their beneficiary designations on assets that include bank accounts, IRAs, annuities, insurance policies, and any other assets. If family situations have changed, these may be out of date.

It’s also a good idea to have an attorney create a medical power of attorney for a minor child, in case another family member needs to take a child to the doctor, discuss their care and make decisions. While this exact document does not exist in California, a similar document may be available.

While young adults may be more worried about the financial impact of the pandemic, seniors and the elderly are concerned about having documents in order. Wealthy people are concerned about the impact that the pandemic may have on estate planning law, and some are engaged in planning to make substantial gifts, in case the current estate and give tax exemptions are lowered.

Other issues to be discussed with an estate planning attorney:

  • Irrevocable living trusts, which provide an opportunity to protect and direct how assets in a trust will be held, invested, and distributed before and after death.
  • Durable powers of attorney, which appoint an agent to make financial decisions.
  • Health-care directive, which let people designate a surrogate to make health decisions on their behalf and receive health care information from physicians and designate whether to provide life-prolonging treatment, if in a terminal state.

Reference: Barron’s (March 22, 2020) “The Coronavirus Has Americans Scrambling to Set Their Estate Plans. Here Are Some Key Things to Know”

What Estate Planning Documents Does My Child Need Now That She’s an Adult?

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Your child may graduate from high school and head off to college or start a full-time job or vocational training program.

Although they’re still your children, the law sees them as are adults. As a result, parents’ “rights” to protect their adult children or make decisions for them immediately becomes quite limited. This remains the same, even if they have moved back home with you during California’s Stay at Home orders.

The Tewksbury Town Crier’s recent article, “Is your child turning 18? Here’s what you need to know,” explains that people often have an estate planning attorney draft the appropriate documents, so they will be legal and binding. Let’s look at a list of documents to consider and discuss with your young adult:

  • HIPAA Authorization: if your 18-year-old has a job in another state or will be attending college and needs medical records or assistance making appointments, ask them to go to the doctor’s and dentist’s office and sign forms that designate agents to act on their behalf. Due to HIPAA laws, information can’t be released without the adult child’s permission.
  • Healthcare Proxy: Have your 18-year old complete this document, make a copy, put a copy on each parent or guardian’s phone and put a copy on your child’s phone. This is for an emergency, like when the child can’t speak for themself. However, don’t wait for an emergency. If your child is at college, the school will only contact you as the emergency contact, but the proxy is between you and the hospital and includes mental health issues. A healthcare proxy lets you to participate in life and death decisions, should your child not be able to advocate for herself.
  • Durable Power of Attorney: A general durable power of attorney or financial power of attorney must also be signed by the 18-year old, designating their parents, guardians, or others as agents authorized to act on their behalf. This allows the agent access to financial information so that they can participate in the financial issues with a university or business in the event that the child cannot.
  • FERPA: This is an educational records release, which allows the educational institution to share grades, transcripts and other related materials with parents or designated agents. Without it, the school will not provide you with access to any information.

Finally, encourage your young adult family member to register to vote.

Reference: Tewksbury Town Crier (December 8, 2019) “Is your child turning 18? Here’s what you need to know”

Five Estate Planning Mistakes to Avoid

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While it’s true that no estate is completely bulletproof, there are mistakes that people make that are big enough to walk through, while others are more like a slow drip, draining retirement finances in a slow but steady process. There are mistakes that can be easily avoided, reports Comstock Magazine in the article “Five Mistakes to Avoid When Planning Your Estate.”

  1. Misunderstanding Estate Law. Some people are so thrown by the idea of an estate plan, that they can’t get past the word “estate.” You don’t need a mansion to have an estate. The term is actually used to refer to any and all property that a person owns. Even modest people need a plan to help beneficiaries avoid unnecessary costs and stress. Talk with an estate planning attorney to learn what your needs are, from a will to trusts. Make sure that this is the attorney’s key practice area. A real estate or personal injury attorney won’t have the same knowledge and experience.
  2. Getting Bad Advice. It takes a team to create a strong estate plan. That means an estate planning attorney, a financial advisor and an accountant. Be wary of firms that focus entirely on selling trusts. There’s definitely a role for trusts in estate plans, but there are many other tools that are needed. Buying an insurance policy or an annuity is not an estate plan.
  3. Naming Yourself as a Sole Trustee. Naming yourself as a sole trustee puts you and your estate in a precarious position. What if you develop Alzheimer’s or are injured in an accident? A trusted individual, a family member, a longstanding friend or even a professional trustee, needs to be named as a backup trustee to protect your interests if you should become incapacitated.
  4. Losing Track of Assets. Without a complete list of all assets, it’s nearly impossible for someone to know what you own and who your heirs may be. Some assets, including retirement funds, life insurance policies, or investment accounts, have named beneficiaries. Those people will inherit these assets, regardless of what is in your will. If your heirs can’t find the assets, they may be lost. If you don’t update your beneficiaries, they may go to unintended heirs—like ex-spouses. Your attorney should help you compile that list to make sure that your successor agents and beneficiaries are informed.
  5. Deciding on Options Without Being Fully Informed. When it comes to estate planning, the natural tendency is to go with what we think is the right thing. However, unless you are an estate planning attorney, chances are you don’t know what the right thing is. For tax reasons, for instance, it may make sense to transfer assets, while you are still living. And for other reasons, it might be best to wait until you pass to transfer the assets. However, that might also be a terrible idea, if you choose the wrong person to hold your assets or don’t put them in the right kind of trust.

Estate planning is still a highly personal process that depends upon every person’s unique experience. Your family situation is different than anyone else’s. An experienced estate planning attorney will be able to create a plan and help you to avoid the big, most commonly made mistakes.

Reference: Comstock Magazine (Dec. 2019) “Five Mistakes to Avoid When Planning Your Estate” 

What Happens If I Don’t Have an Estate Plan?

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It’s so much better to have an estate plan than not to. With a will and/or trust, you can direct your assets to those whom you wish to receive a legacy, rather than the default rules of the State of California. This is according to a recent article in the Houston Chronicle’s entitled “Elder Law: Will you plan now or pay later?”

You should also designate an independent financial agent (known as an executor, power of attorney and trustee). You may want to have an estate planning attorney create a special trust to provide for family members who are disabled, along with trusts for minors and even adult children.

Here are three major items about which you may not have considered that may require changes to your estate plan or motivate you to get one. Years ago, the amount a person could leave to beneficiaries (the tax-free exemption equivalent) was much lower. You were also required to either use it or lose it.

For example, back in 1987 when the exemption equivalent was $600,000 per taxpayer, a couple had to create a by-pass trust to protect the first $600,000 upon the first to die to take advantage of the exemption. The exemption is $11.58 million in 2020, and the “portability” law has changed the “use it or lose it” requirement. There may still be good reasons to use a forced by-pass trust in your will, but in some cases, it may be time to get rid of it.

Next, think about implementing planning to have some control over your assets after you die.

You could have a heart attack, a stroke, or an unfortunate accident. These types of events can happen quickly with no warning. You were healthy and then suddenly a sickness or injury leaves you severely disabled. You should plan in the event this happens to you.

Why would a person not take the opportunity to prepare documents such as powers of attorney for property, powers of attorney for health care, living wills, and medical privacy documents?

It’s good to know that becoming the subject of a court-supervised conservatorship proceeding is a matter of public record for everyone to see. There is also the unnecessary expense and frustration of a guardianship that could’ve been avoided if you’d taken the time to prepare the appropriate documents with an estate planning or elder law attorney.

Why would you want to procrastinate making an estate plan and then die suddenly without ever taking the time to make your will? Without valid estate planning documents, like a trust, your family will have to pay more for a costly probate proceeding.

Reference: Houston Chronicle (Jan. 16, 2020) “Elder Law: Will you plan now or pay later?”

If I’m 35, Do I Need a Will?

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Estate planning is a crucial process for everyone, no matter what assets you have now. If you want your family to be able to deal with your affairs, debts included, drafting an estate plan is critical, says Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “Estate planning for those 40 and under.”

If you have young children or other dependents, planning is vitally important. The less you have, the more important your plan is, so it can provide as long as possible and in the best way for those most important to you. You can’t afford to make a mistake.

Talk to your family about various “what if” situations. It is important that you’ve discussed your wishes with your family and that you’ve considered the many contingencies that can happen, like a serious illness or injury, incapacity, or death. This also gives you the chance to explain your rationale for making a larger gift to someone, rather than another or an equal division. This can be especially significant if there’s a second marriage with children from different relationships and a wide range of ages. An open conversation can help to avoid hard feelings later.

You should have the basic estate plan components, which include a will, a living will, advance directive, powers of attorney, and a designation of an agent to control the disposition of remains. These are all important components of an estate plan that should be created at the beginning of the planning process. A guardian (or guardians) should also be named for any minor children.

In addition, a life insurance policy can give your family the needed funds in the event of an untimely death and loss of income—especially for young parents. The loss of one or both spouses’ income can have a drastic impact.

Remember that your estate plan shouldn’t be a “one and done thing.” You need to review your estate plan every few years. This gives you the opportunity to make changes based on significant life events, tax law changes, the addition of more children, or their changing needs. You should also monitor your insurance policies and investments because they dovetail into your estate plan and can fluctuate based on the economic environment.

When you draft these documents, you should work with a qualified estate planning attorney.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (Jan. 21, 2020) “Estate planning for those 40 and under”

Estate Planning for Unmarried Couples

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For some couples, getting married just doesn’t feel necessary. However, they need to know that they don’t enjoy the automatic legal rights and protections that legally wed spouses do, especially when it comes to death. There are many spousal rights that come with a marriage certificate, reports CNBC in the article “Here’s what happens to your partner if you’re not married and you die.” Without the benefit of marriage, extra planning is necessary to protect each other.

For one, taxes are a non-starter. There’s no federal or state income tax form that will permit a non-married couple to file jointly. If one of the couple’s employers is the source of health insurance for both, the amount that the company contributes is taxable to the employee. A spouse doesn’t have to pay taxes on health insurance.

More important, however, is what happens when one of the partners dies or becomes incapacitated. A number of documents need to be created, so should one become incapacitated, the other is able to act on their behalf. Preparations also need to be made, so the surviving partner is protected and can manage the deceased’s estate.

In order to be prepared, an estate plan is necessary. Creating a plan for what happens to you and your estate is critical for unmarried couples who want their commitment to each other to be protected at death. The general default by law for a married couple (even a very unprepared one with no documents) is that everything goes to the surviving spouse. However, for unmarried couples, the default may be a sibling, children, parents or other relatives. It definitely won’t be the unmarried partner.

This is especially relevant when a person dies with no will. The courts in the state of residence will decide who gets what, depending upon the law of that state. If there are multiple heirs who have conflicting interests, it could become nasty—and expensive.

However, a will isn’t all that is needed.

Most tax-advantaged accounts—Roth IRAs, traditional IRAs, 401(k) plans, etc.—have beneficiaries named. That person receives the assets upon the death of the owner. The same is true for investment accounts, annuities, life insurance and any financial product that has a beneficiary named. The beneficiary receives the asset, regardless of what is in the will. This can be an easy way to include an unmarried partner in your estate plan.

Checking, savings and investment accounts that are in both partner’s names will become the property of the surviving person, but accounts with only one person’s name on them will not. A Transfer on Death (TOD) or Payable on Death (POD) designation should be added to any single-name accounts.

Unmarried couples who own a home together need to check how the deed is titled, regardless of who is on the mortgage. The legal owner is the person whose name is on the deed. If the house is only in one person’s name, it may be difficult to transfer to the other person. Change the deed so both names are on the deed with rights of survivorship, so both are entitled to assume full ownership upon the death of the other.

To prepare for incapacity, an estate planning attorney can help create a durable power of attorney for health care so that partners will be able to make medical decisions on each other’s behalf. A living will should also be created for both people, which states wishes for end of life decisions. For financial matters, a durable power of attorney will allow each partner to have control over the other’s financial affairs.

It takes a little extra planning for unmarried couples, but the peace of mind that comes from knowing that you have prepared to care for each other until death do you part is priceless.

Reference: CNBC (Dec. 16, 2019) “Here’s what happens to your partner if you’re not married and you die”