When Does the Fiduciary Duty Granted by a Power of Attorney Begin?

A recent case examined the issue of when the fiduciary duty begins for an agent who has been given Power of Attorney, as reported by the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin in the article “Presumed power of attorney fraud is main factor in joint-account fight.”

Soon after moving to Illinois from Florida to live with his eldest son, a man and that son opened multiple bank accounts, purchased certificates of deposit (CDs) from a bank where the son’s wife worked and transferred more than $60,000 from two of the man’s Florida bank accounts to Illinois banks. Soon after the man moved, his eldest son deposited more than $300,000 from the sale of his father’s Florida condominium into one of the father’s Illinois bank accounts.

The eldest son then withdrew money from the father’s accounts to pay for home improvement costs and other personal expenses. After the father died, the eldest son’s two brothers sued their older brother, accusing him of initiating numerous transfers of money that were not in their father’s or their best interests, and of exerting undue influence on their father, by convincing him to change his will after he moved in with the oldest brother.

The trial court ordered the older brother to repay more than $900,000 back to the estate, including almost $300,000 in prejudgment interest, and voided the revised estate planning documents that the older brother had his father sign. That included a revised will, trust and power of attorney that favored the older brother.

Once you are appointed as a power of attorney, you become a fiduciary—that’s how most state laws work. That means you must act first in the interest of the person who has appointed you. The law states that an agent owes a fiduciary duty to the principal. Period. Any transactions that favor the agent over the principal (or their estate) are deemed fraudulent, unless the agent is able to disprove the fraud with clear and convincing evidence that his or her actions were undertaken in good faith and did not betray the confidence and trust placed in the agent. If the agent can meet this burden, the challenged transaction may be upheld. But if it doesn’t, then the transaction is not valid.

Some of the facts the court look at when making this determination are: did the fiduciary make a full disclosure to the principal of key information, did the fiduciary pay the fair market value for the transfer and did the principal have competent and independent advice.

In this case, the trial judge found that the multiple transfers into the Illinois banks and the gift of $130,000 from the principal to the oldest brother occurred during the existence of the POA relationship. The oldest brother clearly benefitted from these transfers, which activated the presumption of fraud.

The trial court’s decision was appealed by the older brother, who along with his two younger brothers brought motions for summary judgment, that is, for the appeals court to disregard the decision of the trial court. However, the appeals court agreed with the trial judge that the older brother failed to prove that the transfers were in good faith.

The appeals court makes it clear: the power of attorney fiduciary relationship begins when the power of attorney agent signs the document and the agent has a legal responsibility to put the interests of the principal first.

Reference: Chicago Daily Law Bulletin (April 23, 2020) “Presumed power of attorney fraud is main factor in joint-account fight”

 

Some Counterintuitive Retirement Strategies

There are way too many people who choose to go with their gut, when planning for retirement. Investopedia’s recent article entitled “7 Counterintuitive Retirement Strategies” discusses some big misconceptions people commonly believe when it comes to retirement planning—along with the correct ways of thinking and approaches.

The first myth is that you should constantly be moving in and out of stocks, timing the market and that a buy-and-hold strategy is really a losing one. However, many studies have repeatedly shown that it is often less risky to hold stocks for longer periods. You know, it’s tough to find a 10-year period when the stock market had a negative return. Stocks and real estate are the two big asset classes that have outpaced inflation over time, and—even with a few bearish periods—they’ve slowly gone up in value and will likely continue to do the same. However, that doesn’t mean you can simply fund and forget. Periodically monitor your portfolio and its performance.

Another misconception is that if I don’t sell a losing position, then I don’t have a loss. That is just hogwash. You’re losing money in a declining stock or other security, despite the fact that don’t sell it. You won’t be able to claim a loss on your tax return, if you don’t actually divest. However, the difference between realized and recognized losses is only for taxes. Your actual loss is the same, no matter what is recognized on your tax return.

Myth Number Three is that you can just let your money managers handle it. While professional portfolio management is a good choice in many cases, you still need to be personally engaged in the management of your finances. You can assign market trading and day-to-decisions to a pro, but don’t leave the overall course of your finances totally with your broker or banker.

Next, don’t sell an investment and then buy it back again. Instead, just hold it. No, you can (and probably should) sell a depressed holding and declare a capital loss prior to year’s end to recognize a tax deduction. Why hold on? If the asset does recover, you could plunge in again. Buying an identical stock 30 days before or 30 days after the date of the sale of the original triggers the IRS’s wash sale rules. As a result, your capital loss claim will be void.

Another misconception is that my Social Security benefits will be enough to pay for my retirement years. This is not true. The average monthly Social Security payment for retirees was only $1,471 in June 2019. Benefits vary a lot, but your benefits were never designed to be more than 40% of your pre-retirement wages.

The next myth is that I should put all of my retirement money in totally secure income-oriented investments, especially after I retire. That is not necessarily true. Low-risk vehicles, of course, are more of a priority at this point in your life. However, most retirees should have at least some of their savings in growth and equities in some form, either through individual stocks or mutual funds.

The final misconception is that retirement is a long way away, and so I needn’t worry about it for a while. This is a very dangerous myth, because you’ll be poor and dependent on relatives if you don’t get this straightened out ASAP. It takes time for your investments to grow to what they’ll need to be to keep you through your retirement. Get going! Talk to your estate planning attorney for more information.

Reference: Investopedia (Oct. 21, 2019) “7 Counterintuitive Retirement Strategies”

How to Keep the Family Vacation Home in the Family

If this winter-like weather plus pandemic have left you wondering about how to get started on passing the family vacation home to the family or preparing to sell it in the future, you’ll need to understand how property is transferred. The details are shared in a useful article titled “Exit strategy for keeping the cabin in the family” from The Spokesman Review.

Two options to consider: an outright sale to the adult children or placing the cabin in a qualified personal residence trust. Selling the vacation home and renting it back from the children, is one way that parents can keep it in the family, enjoy it without owning it, and help the children out with rental income.

One thing to bear in mind: the sale of the vacation home will not escape a capital gains tax. It’s likely that the vacation home has appreciated in value, especially if you’ve owned it for a long time. If you have made capital improvements over that time period, you may be able to offset the capital gains.

The actual gain is the difference between the adjusted sales price (that is, the selling price minus selling expenses) and their adjusted basis. What is the adjusted basis? That is the original cost, plus capital improvements. These are the improvements to the property with a useful life of more than one year and that increase the value of the property or extend its life. A new roof, a new deck, a remodeled kitchen or basement or finished basement are examples of what are considered capital improvements. New curtains or furniture are not.

Distinguishing the difference between a capital improvement and a maintenance cost is not always easy. An estate planning attorney can help you clarify this, as you plan for the transfer of the property.

Another way to transfer the property is with the use of a qualified personal residence trust (QPRT). In this situation, the vacation home is considered a second residence, and is placed within the trust for a specific time period. You decide what the amount of time would be and continue to enjoy the vacation home during that time. Typical time periods are ten or fifteen years. If you live beyond the time of the trust, then the vacation home passes to the children and your estate is reduced by the value of the vacation home. If you should die during the term of the trust, the vacation home reverts back to your estate, as if no trust had been set up.

A QPRT works for families who want to reduce the size of their estate and have a property they pass along to the next generation, but the hard part is determining the parent’s life expectancy. The longer the terms of the trust, the more estate taxes are saved. However, if the parents die earlier than anticipated, benefits are minimized.

The question for families considering the sale of their vacation home to the children, is whether the children can afford to maintain the property. One option for the children might be to rent out the property, until they are able to carry it on their own. However, that opens a lot of different issues. They should do so for period of one year at a time, so they receive the tax benefits of rental property, including depreciation.

Talk with a qualified estate planning attorney about what solution works best for your estate plan and your family’s future. There are other means of conveying the property, in addition to the two mentioned above, and every situation is different.

Reference: The Spokesman Review (April 19, 2020) “Exit strategy for keeping the cabin in the family”

Why Is Walt Disney’s Grandson Unable to Claim his $200 Million Inheritance?

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge David J. Cowan recently claimed that Walt Disney’s grandson Bradford D. Lund had Down Syndrome—despite being presented with DNA evidence proving the opposite. The judge also ruled Lund to be “unfit” to receive his $200 million inheritance from Walt Disney and appointed him a temporary guardian to make all his legal decisions. This was all ordered without a hearing. Lund’s legal team is now trying to contest the rulings.

Inside the Magic’s recent article entitled “Walt Disney’s Grandson Sues Judge Claiming He Has Down Syndrome Without Evidence, Blocking $200 Million Inheritance” says that in the complaint, Lund’s attorney Lanny Davis alleges that the probate court’s action is “all too reminiscent of a perspective where facts do not matter but alternative facts do, where the constitution does not matter…”

The alternative facts Davis spoke of are from a 2016 court decision by Superior Court Judge Robert Oberbillig from a 10-day trial brought on by “disgruntled relatives” against Lund. The trial came after seven years of litigation questioning whether Lund was required to have a limited guardianship. In that trial, Lund was examined by two court-appointed physicians, one court-appointed expert and by Judge Oberbillig himself in open court.

From the investigation, Judge Oberbillig rejected the family’s claims that Lund needed guardianship and ruled that Lund was “not incapacitated.” However, Judge Cowan ignored Oberbillig’s ruling and the DNA evidence that showed Lund doesn’t have Down Syndrome. Instead, Cowan stated from the bench: “Do I want to give 200 million dollars, effectively, to someone who may suffer, on some level, from Down syndrome? The answer is no.”

From this statement, Lund’s legal team brought an additional cause of action that claims Judge Cowan and the Los Angeles Court violated an anti-discrimination law, when Judge Cowan made this “indisputably false” statement and “perception.” They claim this resulted in discrimination against Lund and his loss of freedom regarding the right to counsel and property rights without due process of law.

On Feb. 27, 2020, Lund’s counsel also filed a federal civil rights case in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California against Judge Cowan for alleged violation of Lund’s constitutional due process rights in the appointment of a limited guardian ad lit em.

Lund was supposed to have received his portion of his mother’s trust fund when he was 35, which was 15 years ago. He is now 50 years old.

Reference:  Inside the Magic (March 25, 2020) “Walt Disney’s Grandson Sues Judge Claiming He Has Down Syndrome Without Evidence, Blocking $200 Million Inheritance”

C19 UPDATE: Should You Bring Mom Home from the Nursing Home Now?

If you have a loved one currently living in a nursing home, you’re probably worried about them right now. You may not be able to visit them or check in on their care. You may be afraid that the next COVID19 outbreak will strike their facility.

And … you may be struggling with the decision about whether it’s best for them to stay in the facility, or if you should bring them home.

These are all reasonable concerns. There have been more than 5,670 coronavirus deaths in long-term care facilities nationwide, according to state health data reported by NBC News on April 15.

But would Mom or Dad fare better, even with all due social distancing, in the family home?

Some issues to carefully consider if you are struggling with this question now:

  • Are you prepared to shoulder the entire burden of care for your loved one now? If not, are there other family or community resources that could help – and can you access them in the current situation?
  • What does your loved one want? Do the benefits of moving them out outweigh the stress of disruption and displacement?
  • Can you really keep your elderly loved one safer at home … especially if they have chronic conditions such as heart, lung, or kidney disease?
  • How long will you be able to keep up with your loved one’s care at home … and
  • Will your loved one be able to return to the facility if you cannot keep up … or after the danger has passed?
  • Will your loved one lose their Medicare or Medicaid benefits if they leave the nursing home?

These questions, and more, should be addressed before making the decision to remove your loved one from a nursing facility. Check with an elder law attorney who is familiar with your situation, state and federal laws, and nursing home policies who can explain your options and guide you to an informed decision.

Resources: NBC News, Coronavirus deaths in U.S. nursing homes soar to more than 5,500, April 15, 2020; March 18, 2020;

 

Estate Plan Updates in the Age of Coronavirus

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 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 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 surrogates, which let people designate a surrogate to make health decisions on their behalf and receive health care information from physicians.
  • Living wills, which allow people to 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”

Scammers Beef Up Efforts in a Crisis

As if the elderly didn’t have enough to endure, now comes word that scammers who typically prey on seniors are upping their game. Stating that Social Security offices around the country are closed, which is true, scammers are targeting seniors with letters threatening the suspension of their Social Security payments due to pandemic-related office closures.

It’s true that the offices across the country are closed, but Social Security employees are continuing to work, says the My Prime Time News article “Inspector General Warns Public About New Social Security Benefit Suspension Scam.”

What’s more, the Inspector General notes that the Social Security Administration (SSA) will not suspend or discontinue benefits because their offices are closed. The Inspector General has received reports that beneficiaries are receiving letters that advise them to call a phone number referenced in the letter.

Scammers then talk the callers into providing them with personal information or make arrangements for the seniors to send them retail gift cards, wire transfers, internet currency or even sending cash by mail. Otherwise, they tell the seniors that their benefits will be cut off until the office reopens.

Any communication that is received with that message, by mail, phone or email, is fraudulent and should be dismissed. Social Security will never:

  • Threaten with benefit suspension, arrest or legal action, if a fine or fee is not paid,
  • Promise a benefit increase or other help in return for direct payment,
  • Request or even accept payment by retail gift card, wire transfer, internet currency or prepaid debt card,
  • Demand secrecy about payments, or
  • Send letters or reports with personally identifiable information through the U.S. Mail.

Anyone who receives a letter, text, call or email that concerns an alleged problem with a Social Security number should not respond. The challenge is that the communications sometimes include a person’s Social Security number, or contains names, addresses or other information that is accurate. This is because scammers have purchased information illegally, not because the information is legitimate. Anyone receiving any communication from Social Security that demands immediate attention or threatens the end of benefits, should not respond directly to that communication.

Instead, report the scam to the Social Security Administration through its website. If you have any doubt about the validity of the letter or email, speak with a trusted friend, family member, or estate planning attorney. Don’t fall for it—especially during these tense times.

Reference: My Prime Time News (March 28, 2020) “Inspector General Warns Public About New Social Security Benefit Suspension Scam”

Finalizing Estate Planning Documents while Social Distancing

After the initial shock of the pandemic, people are realizing not just that they need to update their wills, but the people who have been named in important roles. In a recent article from The New York Times, “What to Know About Making a Will in the Age of Coronavirus,” one person said, “I think I still have my jerk brother as the trustee. I need to change that.”

However, with social distancing now being the new norm, some necessary processes for finalizing estate plans are calling for extra creativity. While lawyers can draft any necessary documents from their home offices, the documents need to be signed by clients and, depending upon the document and the state, by witnesses and notaries. These parties usually need to be in the same room for the documents to be considered legally valid.

New York’s Governor Andrew M. Cuomo issued an executive order on March 7 that declared a disaster emergency in the state and temporarily gave notaries the authority to authenticate documents by videoconference. Other governors have also issued executive orders to allow video notarizations, including Connecticut, Iowa, New Hampshire and Washington. It’s safe to say that more states will probably permit this as time goes on.

However, besides needing notarizations, wills in New York State and other documents require two unrelated witnesses in the room when the document is signed. That also goes for the health care proxy, which gives a person the ability to name someone to make medical decisions on their behalf, if they become incapacitated.

One New York attorney used a video conference to watch two clients and their witnesses, located more than 100 miles away from his home office, sign new financial powers of attorney and health care proxies. He used his laptop to record a video of the proceedings, while clients used their phones. The client couple sat on the enclosed porch of a friend’s house in a distant county and signed the documents, while their friends stood six feet away. When the couple finished signing, they stepped away and their friends moved in to sign the documents, all in view of the attorney and all, of course, wearing vinyl gloves.

The documents were then scanned and sent to the attorney by email and he notarized them. They will also be mailed to him at his home, and then he will authenticate the documents.

In New Jersey, notaries need to be physically present at the signing of documents. One attorney took extra steps for two ER nurses, both single mothers and on the front lines of the coronavirus outbreak. He met them in the front yard of one of their houses, where a table had been set up and rocks were used to hold down the documents from blowing away in the wind. Everyone wore gloves and brought their own pens. One nurse served as witness for each other, and another friend was a witness for both. After each person signed, they stepped away, while another stepped up to the table.

Not every state is making changes to permit these documents to be witnessed and notarized, so there may be many outdoor signings taking place in the weeks and months to come. Speak with your estate planning attorney, who will know the laws that apply to your state.

Reference: The New York Times (March 26, 2020) “What to Know About Making a Will in the Age of Coronavirus”

You Can Complete Your Estate Plan During the Coronavirus Quarantine

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’s proposed federal legislation that would permit remote online notarization, and Illinois and New York have passed orders to allow notarization utilizing audio visual 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 typically notarized.

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.

With the pandemic, these requirements can be fluid and may change quickly. Be sure to work with an experienced estate planning attorney. Our firm has implemented safety measures and are prepared to help you with your estate planning needs safely and quickly. If you have not updated your estate plan recently or do not have one, sign up for a tele-consultation today.

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