It’s Time to Stop Procrastinating and Have Your Estate Plan Done

While many people have had their wills updated or created in response to the pandemic, millions of Americans have yet to do so, reports the article “How to Stop Stalling On Getting a Will and Estate Plan” from AARP Magazine. The main reasons for the big stall? They haven’t “gotten around to it,” or, they think they don’t have enough assets to leave to anyone and don’t need a will. Neither reason is valid.

Estate Plans Protect Us During Life. A will is a legal document used to distribute assets after death. It saves families from unnecessary costs and stresses resulting from intestacy, which is what having no will is called. However, there are more documents to an estate plan than just a will. One is a health care directive, often called a living will. This document names someone of your choosing to make medical decisions for you if you are unable. It is also used to outline the kind of medical treatments you do or do not want.

Imagine your family faced with making the decision of keeping you on a heart and lung machine or pulling the plug and letting you die. Would they know what you want them to do? Without a living will, they have to make a decision, and hope it’s the one you would have wanted. That’s quite a burden to put on your loved ones, especially since there is a simple way for you to convey your wishes in a legally enforceable manner.

You also Need a Power of Attorney. A financial power of attorney appoints a person of your choosing to make financial and legal decisions on your behalf, if you are incapacitated. This is an important document and can be created to be as broad or as narrow as you want. You can provide the direction for someone—a trusted, responsible adult—to manage finances, including paying bills, managing a portfolio, paying a mortgage and generally taking over the business of your life. Without it, your family will need to go to court to obtain a guardianship and/or conservatorship to take care of these matters.

Estate Planning Requires Hard Conversations. When people say they “haven’t gotten around” to doing their wills, what they are really thinking is “This is too unpleasant a topic for me” or “I can’t bring myself to have this conversation with my children.” Death and sickness are uncomfortable topics, and most people find it painful to discuss them with their spouses and their children.

However, imagine the great relief you will feel when your loved ones know what your wishes are for sickness and death. You can also imagine the relief they will have in knowing that you took the time give them the tools needed to deal with whatever the future will bring.

Joint Wills are Never a Good Idea. A joint will can leave a surviving spouse in a terrible legal and financial situation. They are not even valid in certain states. They can restrict a surviving spouse from changing the instructions of the will, which could create all kinds of hardships. Circumstances change, and a joint will won’t allow for that. Most couples opt for a “Mirror” will, where they leave the estate to each other and/or their children.

Blended Families Need Special Treatment. If your family is made up of children from different parents, it is important to understand that stepchildren are not treated the same as children by the law. You may love your stepchildren as if they were your own, but unless you specifically name them in the will, they will not be included. Your estate planning attorney will know how to address this issue.

A few final thoughts: estate planning laws of each state are different, so you should meet with an estate planning attorney who practices in your state. The Power of Attorney and Health Care Directives should name the people who you feel will carry out your wishes and can be trusted to do as you want. The person does not have to be the oldest male child. They don’t even have to be related to you, as long as the person you choose is trustworthy, responsible and good with managing money and details.

Reference: AARP Magazine (Nov. 12, 2020) “How to Stop Stalling On Getting a Will and Estate Plan”

What are the Biggest Estate Planning Mistakes?

One of the largest wealth transfers our nation has ever seen is about to occur, since in the next 25 years, roughly $68 trillion of wealth will be passed to succeeding generations. This event has unique planning opportunities for those who are prepared, and also big challenges due to the ever-changing legal and tax world of estate planning.

Fox Business’ article “5 estate planning disasters you’ll want to avoid,” discusses the biggest estate planning errors to avoid.

Failing to properly name beneficiaries. This common estate planning mistake is easily overlooked, when setting up a retirement plan for the first time or when switching investment companies. A big advantage of adding a beneficiary to your account, is that the account will avoid probate and pass directly to your beneficiaries.

Any account with a properly listed beneficiary designation will override what is written in your will or revocable living trust. Therefore, you should review your investment and bank accounts to make certain that your beneficiaries are accurate and match your intentions.

Naming a minor as a beneficiary. This can be a problem, if they are still minors when you die. A minor won’t have the legal authority to take control of inheritance or investment accounts until they reach the age of 18 or 21 (depending on state law). When a minor receives an asset as a beneficiary, a court-appointed guardianship will be created to supervise and manage the assets on behalf of the minor. To avoid this mistake, you can name a guardian for the minor child in your will.

Forgetting to fund a trust. Creating a trust is the first step, but many people don’t properly fund their trust after it’s established.

Making a tax mess for your heirs. A significant advantages of passing on real estate or other highly appreciated investments or property, is that your beneficiaries receive what is known as a “step-up” in basis, so that they aren’t responsible for any income taxes on the appreciated assets when they are received. The exception is when inheriting retirement accounts, such as 401k’s and traditional IRAs. Except for a surviving spouse, inheriting a traditional IRA or 401k means that you are now responsible for the taxes owed. With the recent passage of the SECURE Act, most non-spouse beneficiaries must totally withdraw a 401k or IRA within 10 years. It is deemed to be ordinary income for beneficiaries, which could result in a huge tax bill for your heirs. To avoid this, you can convert some or all of your retirement account assets to a Roth IRA during your lifetime, which lets you to pay the conversion taxes at your current income tax rate—a rate that may be much lower than your children or grandchildren’s tax rate. When you pass away, any money that is passed inside a Roth IRA goes tax-free to your heirs.

Failing to create a comprehensive estate plan. Properly establishing your estate plan now, will care for your loved ones financially, and can also save them a lot of emotional stress after you’re gone.

Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney about planning now. It can really affect your family for generations. It is one of the best gifts that you can leave your family.

Reference: Fox Business (Nov. 12, 2020) “5 estate planning disasters you’ll want to avoid”

 

Act Quickly to Protect an Estate

For most families, the process of estate administration or the probate of a will starts weeks after the death of a loved one.  However, before that time, there are certain steps that need to be taken immediately after death, according to a recent article “Protecting an estate requires swift action” from The Record-Courier. It is not always easy to keep a clear head and stay on top of these tasks but pushing them aside could lead to serious losses and possible liability.

The first step is to secure the deceased’s home, cars and personal property. The residence needs to be locked to prevent unauthorized access. It may be wise to bring in a locksmith, so that anyone who had been given keys in the past will not be able to go into the house. Cars should be parked inside garages and any personal property needs to be securely stored in the home. Nothing should be moved until the trust administration or probate has been completed. Access to the deceased’s digital assets and devices also need to be secured.

Mail needs to be collected and retrieved to prevent the risk of unauthorized removal of mail and identity theft. If there is no easy access to the mailbox, the post office needs to be notified, so mail can be forwarded to an authorized person’s address.

Estate planning documents need to be located and kept in a safe place. The person who has been named as the executor in the will needs to have those documents. If there are no estate planning documents or if they cannot be located, the family will need to work with an estate planning attorney. The estate may be subjected to a probate proceeding.

One of the responsibilities that most executors don’t know about, is that when a person dies, their will needs to be admitted to the court, regardless whether they had trusts. If the deceased left a will, the executor or the person who has possession of the will must deliver it to the court clerk. Failing to do so could result in large civil liability.

At least five and as many as ten original death certificates should be obtained. The executor will need them when closing accounts. As soon as possible, banks, financial institutions, credit card companies, pension plans, insurance companies and others need to be notified of the person’s passing. The Social Security Administration needs to be notified, so direct deposits are not sent to the person’s bank account. Depending on the timing of the death, these deposits may need to be returned. The same is true if the deceased was a veteran—the Veteran’s Affairs (VA) need to be notified. There may be funeral benefits or survivor benefits available.

It is necessary, even in a time of grief, to protect a loved one’s estate in a timely and thorough manner. Your estate planning attorney will be able to help through this process.

Reference: The Record-Courier (Oct. 17, 2020) “Protecting an estate requires swift action”

Could a Polar Bear Plunge Help with Dementia?

A “cold-shock” protein has been discovered in the blood of regular winter swimmers at London’s Parliament Hill Lido. The protein has been shown to retard the onset of dementia and even repair some of the damage it causes in mice, according to a report in the BBC’s recent article entitled “Could cold water hold a clue to a dementia cure?”

Professor Giovanna Mallucci, who runs the United Kingdom Dementia Research Institute’s Centre at the University of Cambridge, says the discovery could help scientists with new drug treatments that may help hold dementia at bay. The research, while encouraging, is at an early stage and focuses on the hibernation ability that all mammals retain, which is prompted by exposure to cold.

The link with dementia lies in the destruction and creation of synapses, which are the connections between cells in the brain. In the early stages of Alzheimer’s and other neuro-degenerative diseases, these brain connections are lost. Mallucci saw that brain connections are lost when hibernating animals, like bears, bed down for their winter sleep, but that roughly 20-30% of their synapses are culled as their bodies preserve precious resources for winter. When they awake in the spring, those connections are reformed.

The shock of entering cold water results in a significant increase in heart rate and blood pressure, which can cause heart attacks and strokes in those with underlying illnesses. This also creates a gasp reflex and rapid breathing, which can lead to drowning, if water is inhaled.

Don’t try a plunge without consulting a doctor.

When researching this treatment in mice, scientists found that levels of a “cold-shock” protein called RBM3 soared in the ordinary mice, but not in the others. This suggested RBM3 could be the key to the formation of new connections. Mallucci proved the link in a separate experiment which showed brain cell deaths in Alzheimer’s and prion disease could be prevented by artificially boosting RBM3 levels in mice. This was a major breakthrough in dementia research, and their findings were published in the scientific journal Nature.

Professor Mallucci contends that a drug which prompted the production of RBM3 might help slow—and possibly even partially reverse—the progress of some neuro-degenerative diseases in people. RBM3 hadn’t been seen in human blood, so the obvious next step was to find out whether the protein is present in humans.

It’s hard to get people to become hypothermic by choice, but Martin Pate and his group of Londoners who swim throughout the winter at the unheated open-air London Parliament Hill Lido pool voluntarily made themselves hypothermic on a regular basis, so he thought they’d be ideal subjects of a study.

The tests showed that a significant number of the swimmers had markedly elevated levels of RBM3. All of them become hypothermic, with core temperatures as low as 93.2F. A control group of Tai Chi participants who practice beside the pool but never actually swim, showed no increase in RBM3 levels nor had they experienced very low body temperatures.

The risks associated with getting cold outweigh any potential benefits, so cold water immersion isn’t a potential dementia treatment. The key is to find a drug that stimulates the production of the protein in humans and to show that it really does help delay dementia.

There are some things that can add years to your life, click here.

Reference: BBC (Oct. 19, 2020) “Could cold water hold a clue to a dementia cure?”

Is My Estate Plan Set with a Power of Attorney?

A June 2020 Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies survey showed that a mere 28% of retirees have a financial power of attorney (POA)—and many people don’t understand that there are two types of these advance directives that serve different purposes.

MarketWatch recently published an article “Does your estate plan use the right type of Power of Attorney for you?” that says knowing how both types work is crucial in the pandemic, especially in the event that you get sick with coronavirus.

A Durable Power of Attorney for Finance can be either “springing” or “immediate.” “Durable” refers to the fact that this Power of Attorney will endure after you have lost mental or physical capacities, whether temporary or permanent. It lists when the powers would be granted to the person of your choosing and the powers end at your death.

An “immediate” Durable Power of Attorney for Finance is effective, as soon as you sign the document. In contrast, a “springing” POA for Finance means two physicians must first examine you and confirm in writing that you can no longer manage independently.

Therefore, to begin paying your bills, your agent must have those two physicians’ letters, and he or she doesn’t automatically have the authority to ask for them.

When issues, such as doctors’ letters, are required before the agent you chose can serve you, ask your estate planning attorney for guidance.

An obstacle for a Durable Power of Attorney for Finance can come upon you very fast and possibly include you and your spouse at the same time. For example, you both might get COVID-19.

The powers granted by a typical POA for Finance are often broad and permit selling and buying assets; managing your debt, car and Social Security payments; filing your tax returns; and caring for any assets not named in a trust you may have, such as your IRA.

If you recover your capacity, your agent must turn everything back over to you when you ask.

Remember that your advance directive documents are only as good as the people who implement them. You should also make certain anyone named knows that they’ll have the job, if needed. They must know where to find your POA and all other important information.

For more information about this or other topics, click here.

Reference: MarketWatch (Oct. 9, 2020) “Does your estate plan use the right type of Power of Attorney for you?”

Why Is an Art Dealer’s Family Contesting His Will?

Zarre didn’t have a wife or children. He is believed to have amassed a valuable art collection in the years since he opened the Andre Zarre Gallery on New York’s Upper East Side in 1974.

The gallery closed several years ago, because of Zarre’s health problems.

ArtNews’ recent article entitled “A New York Art Dealer Just Left His Multimillion-Dollar Estate to the Owner of a Deli in Queens—But His Family Is Crying Foul” explains that Yeje met Zarre in 2016. He  reportedly cared for Zarre over the last eight months of his life, including when the dealer contracted the coronavirus.

Zarre recovered but fell in his Park Avenue apartment in July. Yeje drove him to the hospital, where he reportedly died of a heart attack.

“I washed him, I bought his groceries and fed him. He trusted me and I took care of him,” Yeje, who is 50, told the New York Post. “He was an awesome person.”

Friends of the dealer say they questioned his actions, when he reportedly began investing in the Palermo Delicatessen in Glendale, Queens last fall.

“[Zarre] was really going blind and could barely put one foot in front of the other,” Nick Wolfson, a friend of Zarre and one his gallery’s artists, told the New York Post, wondering if failing health had made the elderly dealer vulnerable to a swindle.

Zarre’s first cousin Arkadiusz Tomasik, who lives in the United Kingdom, claims that Zarre always told him that he’d inherit the estate. He questions the validity of the will leaving everything to Yeje, especially since Zarre was legally blind.

Yeje has offered Zarre’s family $45,000 and land that the art dealer owned in his native Poland, in exchange for not challenging the will. Tomasik is reportedly thinking about legal action.

If Tomasik disputes the will, he will file a lawsuit that seeks to invalidate the art dealer’s will. He will have to show that the will was signed under undue influence, by fraud, that Zarre didn’t have the capacity to sign the will or that the will wasn’t signed in accordance with New York law.

For more information about will contesting or other topics, click here.

Reference: ArtNews (Oct. 19, 2020) “A New York Art Dealer Just Left His Multimillion-Dollar Estate to the Owner of a Deli in Queens—But His Family Is Crying Foul”

Despite Pandemic, Many Still Don’t Have an Estate Plan

It’s true—many people still believe that they don’t have enough assets so they don’t need a will, or that their money will automatically go to a next of kin. Both of these beliefs are wrong. While the title of this CNBC article is “More people are creating wills amid the pandemic,” the story’s focus is on the fact that most Americans don’t have a will. If you belong to this group, here’s what happens when you die.

The state you live in has laws about who will receive your assets if you die without a will, known as intestacy. Let’s say you live in New York. Your surviving spouse and children will receive your assets. However, in Texas, your assets will be entered into the state’s intestacy probate process, and your relatives will divide up your assets. Want to be in charge of who inherits your property? Have a will created with an experienced estate attorney.

Young adults think they don’t need a will, but Covid-19 has taken the lives of many healthy, young people. Every adult over age 18 needs a will. If you don’t have one, your loved ones—even if it’s your parents—will inherit a legal mess that will take time and money to fix.

If you have children and no will, there’s no way to be sure who will raise your children. The court will decide. Choose your guardians, name them in your will and be sure to name additional choices just in case the first guardian can’t or won’t serve. You should also appoint someone to be in charge of your children’s money.

What if you had a will created 10 or twenty years ago? That’s another big mistake. Your life changes, the law changes, and so do relationships. Life insurance policies, retirement plans, and transfer-on-death instruments are all legally binding contracts. The last will you made will be used, and if you haven’t updated your will or other documents, then the old decisions will stand. Remember that contracts supersede wills, so no matter how much you don’t want your ex to receive your life insurance proceeds, failing to change that designation won’t help your second spouse. You should review and update all documents.

Doing it yourself is risky. You won’t know if your will is valid and enforceable, if you do it from an online template. Your heirs will have to fix things, which can be expensive. The cost of an estate plan depends on the complexity of your situation. You may only need a will, power of attorney and advance directive. You may also need trusts to pass property along with minimal taxes. An estate planning attorney will be able to give you an idea of how much your estate plan will cost.

Talking about death and planning for it is a difficult topic for everyone, but a well-planned estate plan is one of the most thoughtful gifts you can give to your loved ones.

Reference: CNBC (Oct. 5, 2020) “More people are creating wills amid the pandemic”

 

How Important Is Avoiding Probate?

Estate planning attorneys are often asked if one of the goals of an estate plan is to avoid probate, regardless of the cost. The answer to that question is no, but a better question is the more even-tempered “Should I try to avoid probate?” In that case, the answer is “It depends.” A closer look at this question is provided in the recent article from The Daily Sentinel, “Estate Planning: Is Probate Something to Avoid at All Costs?”

Probate is not always a nightmare, depending upon where a decedent lived. Probate is a court process conducted by judges, who usually understand the difficulty executors and families are facing, and their support staff who genuinely care about the families involved. This is not everywhere, but your estate planning attorney will know what your local probate court is like. With that in mind, there are certain pitfalls to probate and there are situations where avoiding probate does make sense for your family.

In the case where it makes sense to avoid probate, whatever planning strategy is being used to avoid probate must be carefully evaluated. Does it make sense, or does it create further issues? Here’s an example of how this can backfire. A person provided their estate planning attorney with a copy of a beneficiary deed, which is a deed that transfers property to a designated person (called a “grantee”) immediately upon the death of the person who signed the deed (called a “grantor”).

The deed had been signed and recorded properly with the recorder’s office, just as a typical deed would be during the sale of a home. Note that a beneficiary deed does not transfer the title of ownership, until the grantor dies.

Here’s where things went bad. No one knew about the beneficiary deed, except for the grantor and the grantee. The remainder of the estate plan did not mention anything about the beneficiary deed. When the grantor died, ownership of the property was transferred to the grantee. However, the will contained conflicting instructions about the property and who was to inherit it.

Instead of avoiding probate, the grantor’s estate was tied up in court for more than a year. The family was torn apart, and the costs to resolve the matter were substantial.

Had the deceased simply relied upon the probate process or coordinated the transfer of ownership with his estate planning attorney, the intended person would have received the property and the family would have been spared the cost and stress. Sticking with the use of a last will and testament and the probate process would have protected everyone involved.

An experienced estate planning attorney can help determine the best approach for the family, with or without probate.

Reference: The Daily Sentinel (Oct. 3, 2020) “Estate Planning: Is Probate Something to Avoid at All Costs?”

What are Attorney’s Obligations after You Die?

One of the hardest parts of an estate planning attorney’s jobs is managing the death of a client. Estate planning attorneys are highly skilled at creating plans, while clients are living and at administering the plans after their client passes. However, most attorneys become friendly with their clients, and they do grieve when clients pass.

Attorneys can provide the best counsel to their clients, when they are completely honest and upfront with them, explains the article “Attorney-client privilege after a client dies” from LimaOhio.com. While there are some things the attorney doesn’t need to know—like the client’s neighbor’s recent divorce—the more information a client provides their attorney, the better the attorney can help the client and their family.

To encourage a high degree of honesty, there are ethics rules that attorneys are required to follow, including the well-known doctrine of attorney-client privilege.

The attorney-client privilege requires that attorneys keep any confidences and secrets from their clients to themselves. This includes sensitive topics about the clients which the attorney learns from someone other than their client. In other words, the attorney may not share any secrets from the client and about the client.

The attorney-client privilege is designed to protect all aspects of the client’s life, even those parts they may not be proud of.

In some cases, the client’s very identity needs to be kept confidential. If a client wishes to pass an asset on to another person but does not want that person to know who their benefactor was, that secret must not be revealed. If a client has won a multimillion-dollar lottery and wishes to remain private, the attorney is required to keep their identity secret.

This attorney-client privilege applies to the staff in the attorney’s practice also. Something shared with an attorney’s paralegal or secretary must remain confidential, as something that was told directly to the attorney.

To strengthen this privilege further, the attorney-client privilege survives the client’s death. When a client passes, the attorney may not share those secrets.

There are a few exceptions to the rule of the attorney-client privilege that survive a client’s death. Attorneys may discuss their client’s competency to sign documents. The executor of a deceased client’s estate or the spouse of a deceased client has the right to waive this privilege. However, if the client’s secret concerns their spouse or the executor, the attorney may not share that secret in order to allow the executor or spouse to waive that privilege.

For more information about this or other topics, click here.

Reference: LimaOhio.com (Oct. 3, 2020) “Attorney-client privilege after a client dies”

 

Caring for a Loved One from a Distance

Trying to coordinate care from a distance becomes a challenge for many, especially since as many as 80% of caregivers are working. Add COVID-19 into the mix, and the situation becomes even more difficult, reports the article “When your parent is far away and you are trying to care for them” from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The starting point is to have the person you are caring for give you legal authorization to act on their behalf with a Power of Attorney for financial affairs and a Health Care Directive that gives you authority to receive health information under HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act). It is HIPAA that addresses the use, disclosure and protection of sensitive patient information.

Next, have a conversation about their finances. Find out where all of their important documents are, including insurance policies (long-term care, health, life, auto, home), Social Security and Medicare cards. You’ll want to know where their tax documents are, which will provide you with information on retirement accounts, bank accounts and investments.

Gather up family documents, including birth, death, and marriage certificates. Make sure your loved one has completed their estate planning, including a last will and testament.

Put all of this information into a binder, so you have access to it easily.

Because you are far from your loved one, you may want to set up a care plan. What kind of care do they have in place right now, and what do you anticipate they may need in the near future? There should also be a contingency plan for emergencies, which seem to occur when they are least expected.

Find a geriatric care manager or a social worker who can do a needs assessment and help coordinate services, including shopping for groceries, medication administration and help with basic activities of daily living, including bathing, toileting, getting in and out of bed, eating and dressing.

If possible, develop a list of neighbors, friends or fellow worshippers who might create a local support system. If you are not able to visit with any degree of frequency, find a way to see your loved ones on a regular basis through video calls. It is impossible to accurately assess a person’s well-being, without being able to see them. In the past, dramatic changes weren’t revealed until family members made a trip. Today, you’ll be able to see your loved one using technology.

You may need to purchase a smartphone or a tablet, but it will be worth the investment. A medical alert system will provide further peace of mind for all concerned. Regular conference calls with caregivers and your loved one will keep everyone in touch.

Caring from a distance is difficult, but a well-thought out plan and preparing for all situations will make your loved one safer.

For more information about this or other topics, click here.

Reference: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Sep. 28, 2020) “When your parent is far away and you are trying to care for them”