How Do I Use the Pandemic to Finish My Estate Plan?

The coronavirus is making this a most challenging time. It can make considering our own death all the more frightening. However, for some, this is the perfect time to think about estate planning strategy. Your estate plan should be a priority in this crisis.

While looking for issues is important, there are also opportunities to consider, according to Yahoo Finance’s recent article entitled “How to Take Advantage of New Estate Planning Opportunities Caused by the Coronavirus.”

For some, the current financial landscape may be advantageous, due to low interest rates and depressed asset values. That is where your estate planning strategy is needed.

The IRS just announced one of the lowest rates applicable to certain wealth transfer techniques. This, in addition to depressed asset prices, can make for some great opportunities.

This is a very good time for estate planning, because of the federal estate tax system. Even though the federal estate tax rate is a flat 40%, we can currently gift during life or leave at death a total of $11.58 million to children or loved ones without any taxes.

As a result, a married couple can leave more than $23 million to loved ones, before they start to pay federal estate tax.

The federal estate tax exemption is very liberal, when compared to the past. It is also scheduled to adjust upward for inflation until the end of 2025. The federal estate tax exemption will then be cut in half, unless extended or made permanent.

Yes, Congress can also act before that. They can enact a law, and a president could sign it to decrease the exemptions even sooner. Therefore, regardless of the current opportunity, it may be the right time to make gifts before the exemptions decrease.

The key is to have a strategic plan and to make decisions that are right for you and your family.

Estate planning can be intimidating and doubly so in this pandemic. Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney and take care of this today to protect your families and their futures.

Reference: Yahoo Finance (April 2, 2020) “How to Take Advantage of New Estate Planning Opportunities Caused by the Coronavirus”

What Should My Estate Plan Include?
Estate Plan, Living Will, and Healthcare Power of Attorney documents

What Should My Estate Plan Include?

In the COVID-19 pandemic, the two most critical documents to have are medical and financial powers of attorney. You should name someone to do your banking or make your medical decisions, if you are quarantined in your home, admitted to the hospital, or become incapacitated. When you have those in place, you need to create a comprehensive estate plan.

The Huffington Post’s recent article entitled “A Guide To Estate Planning During The Coronavirus Pandemic” says that almost everyone should have an estate plan—even if there’s no major health threat. If you don’t have one, right now is a great time to put it together. Let’s look at the documents you should have and what they mean.

  1. A Financial Power of Attorney. This is a legal document that gives your agent authority to take care of your financial affairs and protect your assets by acting on your behalf. For example, your agent can pay bills, write checks, make deposits, sell or purchase assets, or file your tax returns. Without an FPOA, there’s no one who can act on your behalf. Family members will have to petition the probate court to appoint a guardian to have these powers, and this can be a time-consuming and expensive process.
  2. A Health Care Power of Attorney. Like a financial power of attorney, this legal document gives an agent the power to make health care decisions on your behalf, if you become incompetent or incapacitated. If you’re over the age of 18 and don’t have an HCPOA, your family members will have to ask the probate court to again appoint a guardian with these powers.
  3. A Living Will (Advance Health Care Directive). This allows you to legally determine the type of end-of-life treatment you want to receive, in the event you become terminally ill or permanently unconscious and cannot survive without life support. Without a living will, the decision to remove life support is thrust upon your health care agent or family members, and it can be an extremely stressful decision. If you draft a living will, you detail your wishes and take that decision out of their hands.
  4. A HIPAA Waiver. An advance health care directive will likely contain language that allows your agent to access your medical records, but frequently hospitals will refuse access to medical information without a separate HIPAA waiver. This lets your agents and family members access your medical data so they can speak freely with your physicians, if there is a medical emergency or you become incapacitated.
  5. A Will. A last will and testament is a legal document through which you direct how you want your assets disbursed when you pass away. It also allows you to name an executor to oversee the distribution of your assets. Without a will, the distribution of your assets will be dictated by state law, and the court will name someone to oversee the administration of your estate. A will also lets you name a guardian to take care of your minor children.
  6. A Living Trust. A revocable living trust is a legal tool whereby you create an entity to hold title to your assets. You can change your trust at any time, and you can set it up to outlive you. In the event you become incapacitated or are unable to manage your estate, your trust will bypass a court-appointed conservatorship. A trust also gives you privacy concerning the details of your estate, because it avoids probate, which is a public process. A living trust can also help provide for the care, support, and education of your children, by releasing funds or assets to them at an age you set. A living trust can also leave your assets to your children in a way that will lessen the ability of their creditors or ex-spouses to take your children’s inheritance from them.

Speak with your estate planning attorney to get these documents put in place before it is too late. To learn more about this and other estate planning blogs click here.

Reference: The Huffington Post (April 7, 2020) “A Guide To Estate Planning During The Coronavirus Pandemic”

Estate Planning Basics for Difficult Times

Most people who contract COVID-19 experience mild symptoms, but it does not hurt to be prepared just in case you need to be hospitalized, explains the article “A Guide to Estate Planning During the Coronavirus Pandemic” from HuffPost.com. It is scary to think about being so sick that you aren’t able to make decisions for yourself. However, that’s the point of an estate plan: to ease your fears. You’ll feel better knowing you’ve made health and financial decisions in advance and your loved ones won’t have to guess about your wishes.

Even without a global pandemic, everyone should have an estate plan. If you don’t have one, now is the time to get it done, even if you are single and have limited wealth. An estate plan includes documents like a revocable trust, financial powers of attorney (FPOA), health care powers of attorney (HCPOA) and more.

Right now, the medical and financial powers of attorney are on everyone’s mind. These two documents allow a person you name to do your banking, pay your bills and make medical decisions, if you are quarantined at home, admitted to the hospital, or become incapacitated. If you don’t have a financial power of attorney, a family member will need to request the probate court to appoint a guardian. This will be expensive and time-consuming. The same goes for the health care power of attorney. If a decision needs to be made in an emergency situation, the family will not have the ability to enforce your wishes.

A living will, known in some states as an advance health care directive, lets you be specific about what end-of-life treatment you do or do not want to receive, if you become terminally ill or permanently unconscious. Without a living will, the decision to remove life support must be made by loved ones, without knowing what you want.

A HIPAA waiver permits your loved ones to access medical information. Even when there is a health care power of attorney, there are some institutions that will refuse access to medical information without a standalone HIPAA waiver.

The last will and testament is the legal document that is used to direct distribution of property at the time of death, appoint an executor who will oversee the distribution of assets, and, if you have minor children, name a guardian for them. Without a last will, the court will rely on state laws to determine who inherits your property and who will raise your children.

A living trust is a legal contract that creates an entity to hold your assets. If it is a revocable trust, you control it and you can make changes to it anytime you wish. If you become incapacitated or unable to manage your estate, the living trust avoids the need for a court-appointed conservatorship. When you create the living trust, you appoint a successor trustee who will step in when you are unable to manage your affairs. The living trust creates privacy, since the assets in the trust do not go through probate, which is a public process.

Once you have an estate plan, make sure that the documents are safe and the right people can access them. Some estate planning attorneys store documents for their clients. Copies of relevant documents should be given to your treating physician, financial advisor, family members and any trustees or agents. Keep high quality scanned copies on your computer, and label them, so that they can be identified. Don’t name them “Scan1” and “Scan2.” Label them accurately and include the date the documents were signed.

Speak with your estate planning attorney to ensure that you have all of the necessary documents to protect yourself, your loved ones and your property.

Reference: HuffPost.com (April 7, 2020) “A Guide to Estate Planning During the Coronavirus Pandemic”

Is Your Estate Really as Set as You Think?

Next Avenue’s recent article entitled “Is Your Estate as Planned As You Think?” explains that when you pass away your executor will have many tasks to perform when settling your estate.

It’s helpful to add clarity and lessen the burden of that person’s work in advance. Look at this list of things to make sure your estate is as planned as you think it is:

Is your will current? If you’ve written your will, how long has it been since you drafted it? Have there been any major changes in your life since that time? If so, it’s likely time to update it. Review your will to make certain that it’s an accurate representation of your assets and your wishes now.

Is your will detailed? Yes, you’ve addressed the big stuff, but what about smaller items with sentimental value? You should list who gets what, to avoid fighting.

Have you set out your wishes, so they’re legally binding? Each state has different rules as to what is required for a valid will. Work with an experienced estate planning attorney to make sure your will is valid.

Are your financial affairs organized? Your executor will need to know if you have any recurring payments, as well as your account number, and online passwords. Create a list of regular monthly bills, along with your account numbers and access codes to simplify your executor’s job.

You will also need to let the executor know about any automatic deductions or charges on your credit card, internet-based subscriptions, club memberships, recurring charitable donations and automatic utility payments.

Do you have a way to distribute your personal items? You should determine how your family will divide up the possessions not explicitly listed in your will, such as the lawnmower, dishes and photographs. All of it will need to be either distributed to one of your beneficiaries, donated, or sold.

Conducting comprehensive planning of your estate with an attorney can help ensure that there’s less stress and an easy distribution of your assets.

While speaking with your estate planning attorney, ask about appointing a guardian for your minor children in your will, a healthcare directive, a living will, a HIPAA waiver and whether you should have a trust.

Reference: Next Avenue (Feb. 25, 2020) “Is Your Estate as Planned As You Think?”

How Does Planning for a Special Needs Child Work?

Funding a Special Needs Trust is just the start of the planning process for families with a family member who has special needs. Strategically planning how to fund the trust, so the parents and child’s needs are met, is as important as the creation of the SNT, says the article “Funding Strategies for Special Needs Trusts” from Advisor Perspectives. Parents need to be mindful of the stability and security of their own financial planning, which is usually challenging.

Parents should keep careful records of their expenses for their child now and project those expenses into the future. Consider what expenses may not be covered by government programs. You should also evaluate the child’s overall health, medical conditions that may require special treatment and the possibility that government resources may not be available. This will provide a clear picture of the child’s needs and how much money will be needed for the SNT.

Ultimately, how much money can be put into the SNT, depends upon the parent’s ability to fund it.

In some cases, it may not be realistic to count on a remaining portion of the parent’s estate to fund the SNT. The parents may need the funds for their own retirement or long-term care. It is possible to fund the trust during the parent’s lifetime, but many SNTs are funded after the parents pass away. Most families care for their child with special needs while they are living. The trust is for when they are gone.

The asset mix to fund the SNT for most families is a combination of retirement assets, non-retirement assets and the family home. The parents need to understand the tax implications of the assets at the time of distribution. An estate planning attorney with experience in SNTs can help with this. The SECURE Act tax law changes no longer allow inherited IRAs to be stretched based on the child’s life expectancy, but a person with a disability may be able to stretch an inherited retirement asset.

Whole or permanent life insurance that insures the parents, allows the creation of an asset on a leveraged basis that provides tax-free death proceeds.

Since the person with a disability will typically have their assets in an SNT, a trust with the correct language—“see-through”—will be able to stretch the assets, which may be more tax efficient, depending on the individual’s income needs.

Revocable SNTs become irrevocable upon the death of both parents. Irrevocable trusts are tax-paying entities and are taxed at a higher rate. Investing assets must be managed very carefully in an irrevocable trust to achieve the maximum tax efficiency.

It takes a village to plan for the secure future of a person with a disability. An experienced elder law attorney will work closely with the parents, their financial advisor and their accountant.

Reference: Advisor Perspectives (April 29, 2020) “Funding Strategies for Special Needs Trusts”

Steps to Take When a Loved One Dies

This year, more families than usual are finding themselves grappling with the challenge of managing the affairs of a loved one who has died. Handling these tasks while mourning is hard, and often families do not have time to prepare, says the article “How to manage a loved one’s finances after they die” from Business Insider. The following are some tips to help get through this difficult time.

Someone has to be in charge. If there is a will, there should be a person named who is responsible for administering the estate, usually called the executor or personal representative. If there is no will, it will be best if one person has the necessary skills to take the lead.

When one member of a married couple dies, the surviving spouse is the usual choice. Otherwise, a family member who lives closest to the deceased is the next best choice. That person will need to get documents from the local court and take care of the residence until it is sold. Being physically nearby can make many tasks easier.

It is always better if these decisions are made before the person dies. Wills should be kept up to date, as should power of attorney documents, trusts and advance directives. When naming an executor or trustee, let them know what you are asking of them. For instance, don’t name someone who hates pets and children to be your children’s guardian or be responsible for your beloved dogs when you die.

Don’t delay. Grief is a powerful emotion, especially if the death was unexpected. It may be hard to get through the regular tasks of your day, never mind the additional work of managing an estate. However, there are risks to delaying, including becoming a target of scammers.

Get more death certificates than seems necessary. Make your life easier by getting at least a dozen certified copies, so you don’t have to keep going back to the source. Banks, brokerage houses, phone companies, utilities, credit card companies, etc., will all want to see the death certificate. While there are instances where a copy will be accepted, in many cases you will need an original, with a raised seal. In fact, in some states it is a crime to photocopy a death certificate.

Who to notify? The first call needs to be to the Social Security Administration. You may also want to send an email. If Social Security benefits continue to be paid, returning the money can turn into a time-consuming ordeal. If there are any other recurring payments, like VA benefits or a pension, those institutions need to be notified. The same is true when it comes to insurance companies, banks and credit card companies. Fraud on the credit cards of the deceased is quite common. When a notice of death is published, criminals look for the person’s credit card and Social Security numbers on the dark web. Act fast to prevent fraud.

Protect the physical property. Secure the home right away. Are there plants to be watered or pets that need care? Take pictures, create an inventory and consider changing locks. Take any valuables out of the house and place in a secure location. If the house is going to be empty, make sure to take care of the property to avoid any deterioration.

Paying the bills. Depending on the person’s level of organization, you’ll have to identify where the money is and if anything is being paid automatically. Old tax returns can be helpful to identify income sources. Figure out what accounts need payment, like utilities.

Some accounts are distributed directly to beneficiaries, like transfer-on-death accounts like 401(k)s, IRAs and life insurance policies. Joint bank accounts and real property held in joint tenancy will pass directly to the joint owner. The executor’s role is to inform the institutions of the death, but not to distribute funds.

File tax returns. You’ll have to do the final taxes, due on April 15 of the year after death. If taxes weren’t filed for any prior years, the executor has to do those as well.

Consider getting help. An estate planning lawyer can help with the administration of an estate, if it becomes overwhelming. Regardless of who handles this process, expect the tasks to take anywhere from six months to two years, depending on the complexity of the estate.

Reference: Business Insider (May 2, 2020) “How to manage a loved one’s finances after they die”

Elder Abuse Continues as a Billion-dollar Problem

Aging baby boomers are a giant target for scammers. A report issued last year from a federal agency, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau highlighted the growth in banks and brokerage firms that reported suspicious activity in elderly clients’ accounts. The monthly filing of suspicious activity reports tied to elder financial exploitation increased four times from 2013 through 2017, according to a recent article from the Rome-News Tribune titled “Financial abuse steals billions from seniors each year.”

When the victim knew the other person, a family member or an acquaintance, the average loss was around $50,000. When the victim did not have a personal relationship with their scammer, the average loss was around $17,000.

What can you do to protect yourself, now and in the future, from becoming a victim? There are many ways to build a defense that will make it less likely that you or a loved one will become a victim of these scams.

First, don’t put off taking steps to protect yourself, while you are relatively young. Putting safeguards into place now can make you less vulnerable in the future. If you are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia five or ten years from now, it may be too late.

Create a durable power of attorney as part of your estate plan. This is a trusted person you name as your legal representative or agent, who can manage your financial affairs if need be. While it is true that family members are often the ones who commit financial elder abuse, you’ll need to put your trust in someone. Usually this is an adult child or a relative. Make sure that the POA suits your needs and is properly notarized and witnessed. Don’t count on standard templates covering your unique needs.

Consider the guaranteed income approach to retirement planning. Figuring out how to generate a steady stream of income as you face the cognitive declines that occur in later years might be a challenge. Planning for this in advance will be better.

Social Security is one of the most valuable sources of guaranteed income. If you will receive a pension, try not to do a lump sum payout with the intent to invest the money on your own. That lump sum makes you a rich target for scammers.

Consider rolling over 401(k) accounts into Roth accounts, or simply into one account. If you have one or more workplace retirement plans, consolidating them will make it easier for you or your representative to manage investments and required minimum distributions.

Make sure that you have an estate plan in place, or that your estate plan is current. Over time, families grow and change, financial situations change and the intentions you had ten, twenty or even thirty years ago, may not be the same as they are today. An experienced estate planning attorney can ensure that your wishes today are followed, through the use of a will, trust and other estate planning strategies.

Resource: Rome News-Tribune (April 27, 2020) “Financial abuse steals billions from seniors each year.”

Why Do I Need an Advanced Healthcare Directive?

During the prime of our lives, we typically don’t give much attention to thoughts about becoming seriously ill or about the end of life. Conversations about sickness and your own mortality aren’t easy topics to raise. However, it’s important for us to approach these heavy topics with our families, so we rest easy knowing their needs will be met if or when our health fails.

Rome News-Tribune’s recent article entitled “Things to know before drafting a living will” explains that an advanced healthcare directive, also called a living will, is a legal document in which you can detail the specific types of medical care and comfort treatment that you want, if you are unable to make decisions for yourself because of illness or incapacity. A living will can state whether life support should be used and whether pain medication should be administered.

A living will is separate and distinct from a traditional will. A will is a legal document that states how you would like your assets distributed after you pass away.

A living will is not always required, if you don’t have any strong feelings about the decisions made on your behalf while you are incapacitated. However, if you do want to provide instruction about your treatment and care, a living will is the best way to be certain that your choices will be carried out. Here are some other questions you may want to ask yourself about a living will.

  • Do I want to eliminate the stress of difficult decisions from my family? A living will can relieve your grieving family of the responsibility of making very tough decisions of invoking lifesaving (“heroic”) measures.
  • Do I have strong feelings about life-saving methods? A living will allows you to state your exact preferences on feeding tubes, life support when brain function is minimal and many other circumstances.
  • Do I have a trusted person who is able to carry out wishes? A health care proxy is an individual that you name and give the power to make decisions for you, if you are unable to express your preferences for medical treatment. Along with a living will, the health care proxy or “durable medical power of attorney” can fulfill your wishes accordingly.

Ask your estate planning attorney about this important component of medical and estate planning.

Reference: Rome News-Tribune (March 7, 2020) “Things to know before drafting a living will”

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”