Don’t Forget to Update Your Estate Plan

There are some people who sign their will once in their life and never change it. They may have executed their estate plan late in life, or after they were diagnosed with a serious disease. However, even if your family life and finances are pretty basic, there are still changes in the law that you may need to incorporate into your estate plan.  Some of the people that you named in your will could also have died or moved away.

Forbes’ recent article, “Why You Should Change Your Will Now,” warns us that if you’ve taken the “one and done” approach to your estate plan, think again. In addition to the reasons already mentioned, your assets may have changed dramatically since you signed your will. The plan you put in place years ago, may not have considered new federal and state estate taxes. Now that you’ve accumulated significant wealth that will be passed on to your children, you might need to review your plans for that wealth for your children.

You may want to include grandchildren to help pay for their college education.

It is also not uncommon for parents to want to protect their children from themselves. This can be because of addiction issues or a lack of financial literacy. If that’s an issue, some parents elect to hold monies in trust for adult children, as a way to ensure that the funds will be there throughout the child’s lifetime.

A person’s estate plan should grow with them over time. An estate plan for a twenty-something may be very basic, but a newly-married couple will want to include provisions for their spouse. Parents need to think about providing for and protecting their children. Adult children have another set of concerns and you need prepare for the possibility of divorcing spouses, poor life choices, addiction issues and just poor money management. There are many stages in life when you may need to readjust the provisions for your children in your estate planning documents.

If you haven’t looked at your will in a while, do it now.

Reference: Forbes (August 27, 2019) “Why You Should Change Your Will Now”

Why Wills Need to be Updated

Lives change, and laws change. People come and go in our lives, through birth, death, marriage and divorce. Change is a constant factor in everyone’s lives. If your estate plan doesn’t keep up to date, says Next Avenue in the article “8 Reasons You May Need to Update Your Will,” you could create real problems for those you love. Here are eight reasons why people need to review their wills to ensure that your estate plan reflects your current life.

Moving to a new home. If you’ve moved to a new state since the last time your will was written, your will needs a review. Remember, wills are administered under the laws of the state where you live, so the new state’s laws apply. An out-of-state will could present issues. If the number of witnesses required to make a will valid in your old state of residence was one, but the new state requires two witnesses, your will could be deemed invalid.

Selling one home and buying another. If your will does not reflect your current address, it’s going to be very difficult for your executor to properly transfer ownership or manage the sale of the house. Most wills incorporate specific language about homes that includes the address.

You’ve done a good job of downsizing. Kudos to you for cleaning out and getting rid of unwanted items. If you no longer own things that are itemized in a will, they’ll be skipped over. However, do you want to give heirs something else? Without specific instructions, they won’t know who gets what.

Did you already give away possessions? Avoid family conflicts by being clear about who gets what. If you already gave your oldest daughter an antique dining room set but your will says it goes to the youngest son, things could become awkward. Similarly, if you gave one child something with a higher market or sentimental value than what you gave to another, it could create tension in the family. Updating your will is an opportunity to adjust these gifts.

Charity relationships change. The same organization that mattered greatly to you ten years ago may not have as much meaning—or may have changed its focus. Update your will to reflect the charitable contributions that matter to you now.

Finances change. If a will spells out exact amounts and the money is gone, or if your accounts have increased, those numbers may no longer be accurate or reflect your wishes. The dollar amounts may create a challenge for your executor. What if you designated a gift of stock to someone that wasn’t worth much at the time, but is worth a small fortune now? Amending a will can ensure that your gifts are of the value that you want them to be.

One child is now your primary caregiver. If one child has dedicated the last five years to taking care of you, you may want to update the document to show your gratitude and compensate them for lost earnings or expenses. If you do, explain your reasons for this kind of change to other children, so that there’s no misunderstanding when the will is read.

A beneficiary has passed away. If you are a surviving spouse, that alone may not be reason to update your will, if—and this is a big if—your will included alternate recipients as a plan for this situation. If there were no alternate recipients, then you will need to revise your will after the death of a spouse. If you listed leaving items to a beneficiary who has died, instructions on how to distribute these items or assets to someone else can be done with an amended will.

Your estate planning attorney will be able to review your will and your estate plan with you to determine what items need to be updated. Your documents may need only a tune-up, and not a complete overhaul, but it is advisable to review estate plans every three or four years.

Reference: Next Avenue (August 22, 2019) “8 Reasons You May Need to Update Your Will”

Three Different Kinds of Power of Attorney

Without a durable power of attorney, helping a family member or loved one who cannot act on their own becomes far more difficult and stressful. Powers of attorney, also known as POA, typically give the agent specific powers to conduct the person’s financial business, explains the Aiken Standard in the article “The durable power of attorney.”

There’s also a healthcare power of attorney, which gives the named person the authority to make medical decisions, usually when the person is not able to do so because of illness or injury.

There are three different powers of attorney: non-durable, springing and durable. A non-durable power of attorney becomes effective immediately upon execution by the person. It remains active until it is either terminated or revoked by the person themselves, the person becomes mentally incapacitated or if the person dies.

The durable power of attorney is in effect from the moment it is executed. It is not revoked if the person becomes incapacitated (hence the term “durable”), nor by the passage of time. The person can alter or terminate a durable power of attorney at any time before there is physical or mental incapacity, however, and it does end when the person dies.

Springing powers of attorney become effective at a future date. They “spring” into power, according to the terms of the document. That may be the occurrence of a particular event, like the person becoming incapacitated or disabled. They can be problematic, as there will be a need to prove that the person has become incapacitated and/or disabled.

The advantage of the durable power of attorney is that it remains in effect even after the person has become impaired. The agent has the ability to act right away. If time is of the essence (i.e., there is an emergency that requires quick action), there is no need to go to court to have the approval to act.

For many people, having a durable power of attorney for financial matters and another, separate document, for medical decisions, is the best way to go. Some states require that these two powers be embodied in two different documents. A local estate planning attorney will know what your state requirements are.

Power of attorney documents should be created and executed, along with a complete estate plan, long before an individual begins having problems in aspects of their lives. When they are signed, it is necessary for the person to have full mental capacity. They have to be able to be “of sound mind.” If they have been diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s, it is necessary that all these documents be prepared as soon as possible. If they lack mental capacity, the will and all related documents are likely to be challenged.

Without a durable power of attorney, family and friends won’t be able to make important financial decisions, pay bills, make healthcare decisions and engage in any kind of Medicaid planning. Anyone who wanted to take on any of these responsibilities would have to go to court and be appointed the person’s guardian. It’s much easier to tackle these tasks in advance, so that the family can act on their loved one’s behalf in a timely and effective manner.

Reference: Aiken Standard (August 24, 2019) “The durable power of attorney”

Preparing for Alzheimer’s

Once there has been a diagnosis of dementia, there are a number of issues that families need to address, including legal issues. The best way to approach this task, says being patient in the article “Alzheimer’s and the Law” is to meet with an estate planning attorney who can guide the family in planning for the future, and creating the needed documents.

The conversation will start with who should be named to two different kinds of power of attorney. One is for the durable power of attorney, which will give the named person the ability to manage any business decisions, sign contracts and deal with insurance companies. This document will need to be inclusive, so the agent can act for the person who is going to be incapacitated.

Next, there will need to be a healthcare power of attorney. It should be complemented by a living will, which states what kind of lifesaving measures you would want, if you were to be declared terminally ill. The healthcare power of attorney also allows a person to be named to make medical decisions, if the person with dementia can no longer make good decisions on their own behalf.

As long as the doctor has not yet declared the person incapacitated, they can sign the power of attorney for financial and health care. If the person has been declared incapacitated, then the family will need to go to court for a guardianship proceeding, so the court can declare who will be in charge of the person with dementia.

Some families prefer to have one person in charge of the loved one’s financial affairs and a second person to be their healthcare power of attorney. If there is a family member who is good with money and business, that person will do a better job than someone whose heart is in the right place but doesn’t manage money well. A nervous or easily excitable family member may also not be the best choice for healthcare power of attorney, especially if important decisions need to be made in a crisis situation.

Make sure that the people who are being considered for these tasks live near enough, so they can be available when needed. A child who lives on the other side of the country may want to be the decision maker, but if they are too far away, it will create more problems than it solves.

Before naming anyone to the power of attorney roles, speak with them about the situation, and be clear about what they will be expected to do. Clarify the difference between the two roles, and that of the executor. The executor is the person who is in charge of the person’s estate after they pass. They do not have an active role, while the person is living.

People generally don’t like to think about times when they may not enjoy good health, but this is a situation where waiting to address the issue can become extremely costly. A skilled estate planning attorney who works with families with dementia will understand the situation. They can be a valuable resource of information about other related services that will become needed over time.

Reference: being patient (August 22, 2019) “Alzheimer’s and the Law”

How Does a Probate Proceeding Work?

A Will, also known as Last Will and Testament, is a legal document that is used in probate court, if a person dies with assets that are in their name alone without a surviving joint owner or beneficiary designated, says the Record Online in the article “Anatomy of a probate proceeding.” The probate process proves the will is valid.

Probate is a judicial or court proceeding, where the probate court has jurisdiction over the assets of the person who has died. The court oversees the payment of debts, taxes and probate fees, in addition to supervising distribution of assets to the person’s beneficiaries. The executor of the will is to manage the probate assets and then report to the judge.

Without a will, things get messy. A similar court proceeding takes place, but it is known as an administrative proceeding, and the manager of the estate is called an administrator, and not the executor.

To start the probate proceeding, the executor completes and submits a probate petition with the probate court. Some executors do this on their own, but most hire an estate planning attorney to help. The attorney knows the process, which keeps things moving along.

The probate petition lists the beneficiaries named in the will, plus certain relatives who must, by law, receive legal notice in the mail. Let’s say that someone disinherits a child in their will. That child receives notice and learns they have been disinherited. Beneficiaries and relatives alike must return paperwork to the court stating that they either consent or object to the provisions of the will.

A disinherited child has the right to file objections with the court, and then begin a battle for inheritance that is known as a will contest. This can become protracted and expensive, drawing out the probate process for years. A will contest places all of the assets in the will in limbo. They cannot be distributed unless the court says they can, which may not occur until the will contest is completed.

The will contest can be resolved in two ways: with a settlement between the parties involved, or with a jury trial. It is always possible that the disinherited person could prevail and be awarded any amount of the inheritance, regardless of what the decedent said in their will.

In addition to the expense and time that probate takes, while the process is going on, assets are frozen. Only when the court gives the all clear does the judge issue what are called “Letters Testamentary,” which allows the executor to start the process of distributing funds. They must open an estate account, apply for a taxpayer ID for the account, collect the assets and ultimately, distribute them, as directed in the will to the beneficiaries.

Can a will contest, or probate be avoided? Avoiding probate, or having selected assets taken out of the estate, is one reason that people use trusts as part of their estate plan. Assets can also be placed in joint ownership, and beneficiaries can be added to accounts, so that the asset goes directly to the beneficiary.

By working closely with an estate planning attorney, you’ll have the opportunity to prepare an estate plan that addresses how you want assets to be distributed, which assets may be placed outside of your estate for an easier transfer to beneficiaries and what you can do to avoid a will contest, if there is a disinheritance situation looming.

Reference: Record Online (August 24, 2019) “Anatomy of a probate proceeding”

Electronic Wills Are Here—But Should You Have One?

Florida is one of the early states permitting residents to have wills, along with some other types of estate planning documents, signed and completed electronically and online. This will require remote notarizations and witnesses to appear via certain approved secure video chat services, reports News Chief in the article “Electronic wills are coming, but are they a good idea?”

A movement to pass a similar law failed in 2017, as the result of a veto by then Governor Scott. However, a revised and approved version of the bill passed this summer and has already been signed into law by Governor DeSantis.

Under the new law, notaries will be required to undergo new training in order to be able to conduct executions of electronic wills. Certain qualified and state-approved custodians will oversee safeguarding the completed electronic wills for safekeeping, until the creator of the will dies, at which time the electronic wills may be electronically filed with the appropriate probate court.

Florida is only the fourth state to implement laws related to the execution and storage requirements for electronic wills. One concern is whether other states will honor these documents.

If other states will not accept the electronic wills, then a deceased person’s assets that are subject to probate administration in other states may not go to the person’s intended beneficiaries. Traditional, hard copy will executions typically occur in an attorney’s office, with proper procedures and safeguards put into place by a licensed attorney who practices in this area of the law. Many of these same procedures and safeguards will not be in place for electronic execution of electronic wills.

There is concern that these wills present an enticing target and that many family members will argue that the will is not valid, because of undue influence or a lack of capacity.

The 2019 version of the law has safeguards, that were not in the 2017 law, to protect vulnerable adults. However, until these electronic laws go through probate contests, there will not be much clarity for estate planning attorneys. One last concern—if the documents can be executed electronically, there are greater opportunities for criminals or people with bad intentions to more easily take advantage of vulnerable seniors.

Whether you agree that electronic wills are the future, this is still a very new process that has yet to be tried and tested. There will likely be more questions raised in the next few years about their safety and includes cases that will be taken to court to resolve issues and challenges.

For most people, this is the time to wait and see how the electronic will scenario works out. It may take a few years before the bumps are ironed out. In the meantime, meet with an estate planning attorney to create an estate plan that is on paper and follows a traditional process.

Reference: News Chief (August 23, 2019) “Electronic wills are coming, but are they a good idea?”

What Happens when Both Spouses Die at the Same Time?

There are any number of ways a person can inherit assets from another person. They may inherit assets from a trust, through a will or as a designated beneficiary of an insurance policy or retirement account. However, in each case, says Lake Country News in the article “Simultaneous and close together deaths,” the person inheriting the asset is living, while the person they inherited from has died.

What happens if spouses die either at the same exact time, or at a time that is very close to each other? The answer, as with so many estate planning questions, is that it depends.

The first question is, did both decedents have estate planning documents in place. If so, what directions do the wills give? Are there trusts, and if so, who are the trustees? If they served as trustees for each other’s trusts, did they name a secondary trustee?

If assets were owned as joint tenancy with right of survivorship, the estate of each deceased tenant receives an equal share of the asset, unless it can be proven that a joint tenant survived the other.

Here’s an example: if a parent dies without a will, is survived by two children, but one of the two children dies only four days after the parent’s death, i.e., fewer than 120 hours, in California, the law presumes that the deceased child did not survive the mother. The sole surviving child’s estate receives the entire parent’s intestate estate.

A beneficiary who survives long enough to inherit, however, might die before receiving complete distribution of his or her inheritance.

A trust may provide for distributions to alternative beneficiaries. This is another reason why it is wise to have primary and secondary beneficiaries on all accounts that permit secondary beneficiaries. Not all accounts permit this.

Similarly, a trust may provide for distribution to alternative beneficiaries. Otherwise, unless there has been advance planning, the undistributed inheritance becomes part of the deceased beneficiary’s estate, where it will be distributed either according to the beneficiary’s will, or according to the laws of intestacy of the decedent’s state of residence.

All of these instances are further reasons why it is so important for everyone to have a will and other estate planning documents prepared.

A probate of the beneficiary’s estate may be required, as a result of an undistributed inheritance.

The legal and factual analysis associated with the distribution of a couple who die at the same time or in close proximity to each other varies from case to case. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to have an estate plan prepared to avoid your family having to unravel the knotty mess that is created when there is no will, and no estate planning has been done.

Reference: Lake Country News (Aug. 10, 2019) “Simultaneous and close together deaths”

What Goes into an Estate Plan?

The very idea of creating an estate plan can be intimidating, but this article from Brainerd Dispatch, “Navigating your estate plan,” wisely advises breaking down the process into smaller pieces, making it more manageable. By taking it step by step, it’s more likely that you’ll be comfortable getting started with the process.

Start with Beneficiaries. This may be the easiest way to start. If you have retirement accounts, like IRAs, 401(k)s, 403(b)s or other retirement accounts, chances are you have already written down the name of the person who you want to receive your assets, if you die. The same goes for life insurance policies. The beneficiary designation tells who receives the assets on your death. You should also note that there are tax ramifications, if you do not have a beneficiary. Your assets could become taxable five years after you die, without a named beneficiary.

Be aware that no matter what your will says, the name on your beneficiary designations on these accounts determines who gets the assets. You need to check on these to be sure the people you have named are still the people who you want to receive your accounts. You should review the designations every time you review your estate plan, which should be every three or four years.

Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way Forward. The will is a key document in your estate plan. It can be used to minimize taxes on your estate, ensure that your family has the management assistance they need, and, if you have minor children, establish who their guardians should be. Don’t neglect updating your will, whenever there is a big change to the law or changes in your life. Not having a will leaves your family in a terrible position, where they will have to endure unnecessary expenses and added stress. Your assets will be distributed according to the laws of your state, and not according to your own wishes.

Directives for Difficult Times Health care directives give your loved ones direction when a terrible situation occurs. If you become incapacitated, through an accident or serious illness, the health care directive tells your family members what kind of care you want—or do not want. You should also have a health care proxy, so that a person can make medical decisions on your behalf. An estate planning attorney who is licensed in your state will know what forms are accepted.

In addition, you’ll need a financial power of attorney. This allows you to designate someone to step in and manage your finances in the case of incapacity. This is especially important if you are single, because otherwise a court may name someone to be your financial guardian.

What About Trusts? If you own a lot of assets or if your estate is complicated, a trust may be helpful. Trusts are legal entities that hold assets on behalf of a beneficiary or beneficiaries. There are many different types of trusts that are used to serve different purposes, from Special Needs Trusts that are designed to help families plan for an individual with special needs, revocable trusts used to avoid probate and testamentary trusts, which are created only when you die. An estate planning attorney will know which trusts are appropriate for your individual situation.

Reference: Brainerd Dispatch (Aug. 11, 2019) “Navigating your estate plan”

Who Looks Out for the Solo Senior?

She was a bit surprised, when she couldn’t find any. She then realized that it’s the adult children who push their aging parents into long-term care facilities. That’s who usually gets mom or dad to move, asks Market Watch in the article “Who watches out for childless retirees? How ‘solo agers’ can stay happy and safe.”

The adult children are the ones who badger their aging parents to leave their single family home and take up residence in a long-term care or senior living community. Those who don’t have children, or whose children are not a part of their lives, are more likely to encounter serious risks like isolation, financial elder abuse, malnutrition and other dangers.

It is the children who usually instruct mom or dad to hand over the keys to the car, who notice a decline in physical or mental abilities and identify sources for help, oversee their finances and supervise caretakers. A solo person who can no longer care for themselves, isn’t likely to have the ability to conduct a thorough study of possible living situations.

This is a tough but necessary scenario that single seniors need to be aware of. How can you stay safe and happy, while preparing for care you may need in the future?

Start by building a community. Without an extended social network, seniors can find themselves isolated and lonely as friends die or move in or near their grandchildren. By strengthening ties with the remaining relatives and cultivating new friends, especially those who are younger, it’s possible to build a new network. The same thing applies to making friends with neighbors, the people you see in the coffee shop every day and other acquaintances. You don’t need to be best friends with everyone. However, a big network of what are called “weak tie relationships” can be powerful.

Be smart about where you live. A walk-up in a five-story building may be great when you are in your thirties, forties or even fifties. However, at some point, that’s just not a good idea. If you live in the suburbs, what will happen when you can’t drive anymore? Not everyone wants or can afford to live in a planned community. There are some cities that have organized villages for aging in place, where there are services available for seniors, including local transportation to and from the local senior centers. Co-housing is another option, where people build clusters of homes around shared spaces. In some communities, there are “naturally occurring” retirement communities where residents socialize and look out for each other. They might crop up in any kind of living situation, from apartment buildings, condos, townhouses, etc. Don’t overlook the “Golden Girls” lifestyle—sharing a home with other seniors.

Either enlist or if need be, hire future guardians. Estate planning attorneys recommend that all adults have documents in place that permit someone else to make decisions, in case of incapacity at any age. However, for solo seniors, it is especially important to have powers of attorney for finances and health care. Without these documents, someone else who may not even know you will be given control over your finances and health care. Becoming a ward of the court is not an ideal situation for anyone, especially a vulnerable senior.

Choosing someone to take on these roles is not always easy. It may be a younger friend or a trusted relative (preferably younger) may be willing. In California and Arizona, it is possible to hire a licensed fiduciary for this role. Your estate planning attorney may be able to put you in touch with an appropriate professional.

Reference: Market Watch (Aug. 9, 2019) “Who watches out for childless retirees? How ‘solo agers’ can stay happy and safe”

Why Do I Need an Attorney to Help Me with Estate Planning?

Your estate plan can be simple or complicated. The New Hampshire Union Leader’s recent article, “Estate planning is important and may require help from a professional,” says that some strategies are definitely easier to implement—like having a will, for example. Others are more complex, like creating a trust. Whatever your needs, most strategies will probably necessitate that you hire a qualified estate planning attorney. Here are some situations that may require special planning attention:

  • Your estate is valued at more than the federal gift and/or estate tax applicable exclusion amount ($11.4 million per person in 2019);
  • You have minor children;
  • You have loved ones with special needs who depend on you;
  • You own a business;
  • You have property in more than one state;
  • You want to donate to charities;
  • You own valuable artwork or collectibles;
  • You have specific thoughts concerning health care; or
  • You desire privacy and want to avoid the probate process.

First, you need to understand your situation, and that includes factors like your age, health and wealth. Your thoughts about benefitting family members and taxes also need to be considered. You’ll want to have plans in place should you become incapacitated.

Next, think about your goals and objectives. Some common goals are:

  • Providing financial security for your family;
  • Preserving property for your heirs;
  • Avoiding disputes among family members or business partners;
  • Giving to a charity;
  • Managing your affairs, if you are disabled;
  • Having sufficient liquidity to pay the expenses of your estate; and
  • Transferring ownership of your property or business interests.

Ask your attorney about a will. If you have minor children, you must have a will to address guardianship, unless your state provides an alternative legal means to do so. Some people many need a trust to properly address their planning concerns. Some of your assets will also have their own beneficiary designations. Once you have you a plan, review it every few years or when there’s a birth, adoption, death, or divorce in the family.

Reference: New Hampshire Union Leader (July 27, 2019) “Estate planning is important and may require help from a professional”