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.

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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.

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

 

Protect Your Estate with Five Facts

It is true that a single person who dies in 2020 could have up to $11.58 million in personal assets and their heirs would not have to pay any federal estate tax. However, that doesn’t mean that regular people don’t need to worry about estate taxes—their heirs might have to pay state estate taxes, inheritance taxes or the estate may shrink because of other tax issues. That’s why U.S. News & World Report’s recent article “5 Estate Planning Tips to Keep Your Money in the Family” is worth reading.

Without proper planning, any number of factors could take a bite out of your children’s inheritance. They may be responsible for paying federal income taxes on retirement accounts, for instance. You want to be sure that a lifetime of hard work and savings doesn’t end up going to the wrong people.

The best way to protect your family and your legacy, is by meeting with an estate planning attorney and sorting through all of the complex issues of estate planning. Here are five areas you definitely need to address:

  1. Creating a last will and testament
  2. Checking that beneficiaries are correct
  3. Creating a trust
  4. Converting traditional IRA accounts to Roth accounts
  5. Giving assets while you are living

A last will and testament. Only 32% of Americans have a will, according to a survey that asked 2,400 Americans that question. Of those who don’t have a will, 30% says they don’t think they have enough assets to warrant having a will. However, not having a will means that your entire estate goes through probate, which could become very expensive for your heirs. Having no will also makes it more likely that your family will challenge the distribution of assets. As a result, someone you may have never met could inherit your money and your home. It happens more often than you can imagine.

Checking beneficiaries. Once you die, beneficiaries cannot be changed. That could mean an ex-spouse gets the proceeds of your life insurance policy, retirement funds or any other account that has a named beneficiary. Over time, relationships change—make sure to check the beneficiaries named on any of your documents to ensure that your wishes are fulfilled. Your will does not control this distribution and is superseded by the named beneficiaries.

Set up a trust. Trusts are used to accomplish different goals. If a child is unable to manage money, for instance, a trust can be created, a trustee named and the account funded. The trust will include specific directions as to when the child receives funds or if any benchmarks need to be met, like completing college or staying sober. With an irrevocable trust, the money is taken out of your estate and cannot be subject to estate taxes. Money in a trust does not pass through probate, which is another benefit.

Convert traditional IRAs to Roth retirement accounts. When children inherit traditional IRAs, they come with many restrictions and heirs get the income tax liability of the IRA. Regular income tax must be paid on all distributions, and the account has to be emptied within ten years of the owner’s death, with limited exceptions. If the account balance is large, it could be consumed by taxes. By gradually converting traditional retirement accounts to Roth accounts, you pay the taxes as the accounts are converted. You want to do this in a controlled fashion, so as not to burden yourself. However, this means your heirs receive the accounts tax-free.

Gift with warm hands, wisely. Perhaps the best way to ensure that money stays in the family, is to give it to heirs while you are living. As of 2020, you may gift up to $15,000 per person, per year in gifts. The money is tax free for recipients. Just be careful when gifting assets that appreciate in value, like stocks or a house. When appreciating assets are inherited, the heirs receive a step-up in basis, meaning that the taxable amount of the assets are adjusted upon death, so some assets should only be passed down after you pass.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (Sep. 30, 2020) “5 Estate Planning Tips to Keep Your Money in the Family”

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Little Things Add Years to Your Life

Get moving, says a 20-year study conducted with nearly 15,000 residents of the United Kingdom age 40 to 79. Considerable’s recent article entitled “This small lifestyle change can add years to your life” explains that the subjects who kept or increased to a medium level of activity were 28% less likely to die than those who stayed at a low level of activity.

The research was conducted by the MRC Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge, and the results were published in The British Medical Journal.

The researchers split the sample into three groups who engaged in low, medium, and high levels of activity. They monitored changes to their activity for about eight years. Then they looked at the health effects over the next 12½ years.

The researchers found that those who stayed or increased their level of activity from low to medium were 28% less likely to die during that second phase than those who kept a low level of activity.

Moreover, those subjects who’d been moderately active but raised their activity level achieved a significant 42% increase in survival, compared to the low-activity subjects.

This impact was present even for those respondents who ate an unhealthy diet or had experienced a health condition, like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or obesity.

So, the big question is just how much activity is required?

The study defined the activity levels according to the following guidelines:

  • Low: Less than the guideline of 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity activity
  • Medium: achieving the guideline of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per week; and
  • High: The guideline of 300 minutes of moderate-intensity weekly activity.

The high level also allowed for an equivalent, like 75 weekly minutes of high-intensity activity, or 60 minutes of high-intensity activity and 30 minutes of medium-intensity activity per week.

The researchers think that their study will motivate more people to take it up a notch, regardless of their age.

“These results are encouraging, not least for middle aged and older adults with existing cardiovascular disease and cancer, who can still gain substantial longevity benefits by becoming more active, lending further support to the broad public health benefits of physical activity,” the authors commented.

Reference: Considerable (Sep. 22, 2020) “This small lifestyle change can add years to your life”

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Can a Power of Attorney Protect My Assets as I Get Older?

Elder law attorneys help protect individuals as they grow older and then protect their beneficiaries when they pass away.

The Street’s recent article entitled “Guide to Protect Your Assets as You Age – Power of Attorneys” asks us to think about visiting your family doctor for the last 30 years but then needing to see a specialist for the first time. That’s because your family doctor isn’t a specialist, and they might miss something. The article explains that elder law attorneys are the specialists of the legal profession—they take a fresh look at a client’s situation and develop strategies to protect them and their families from the risks as we grow older.

Elder law attorneys show you how to protect yourself and your family. When partnering with an elder law attorney, they make certain that your estate goes to your family as you intended, with little or no tax liability.

An important tool for elder law attorneys is the Power of Attorney (POA). There are two of them: a medical POA and a financial POA. These allow you to designate a trusted agent to make your medical and financial decisions, when you are unable.

Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic has placed everyone in difficult circumstances. As a result, many hospitalized patients are without the proper estate planning documents. While things are letting up some, hospitals, nursing homes, and assisted living homes have shuttered their doors to visitors and non-essential workers in an attempt to minimize the spread of this disease. As a result, many patients are unable to get these documents signed.

Although some states initially prevented electronic signatures and notarization that would keep contact to a minimum, many have now permitted patients access to elder law and estate planning attorneys, when needed. These states have signed executive orders that allow for electronic signatures, which has been a huge help. Even so, this can be challenging for an elder individual.

Financial powers of attorney are not all the same either. They are just one tool in the toolbox.

A power of attorney can have a list of things you will permit your designated agent to do for you. Many of these documents do not give your agent enough power to protect you. That’s because they limit your agent’s abilities. That may sound good when you first sign them, but the result is that it makes things harder for your family, if you have a stroke and your loved one needs to protect your finances.

Reference: The Street (Sep. 24, 2020) “Guide to Protect Your Assets as You Age – Power of Attorneys”

Why Everyone Needs an Estate Plan

Many people think you have to be a millionaire to need an estate plan and investing in an estate plan is too costly for an average American. Not true! People of modest means actually need an estate plan more than the wealthy to protect what they have. A recent article from TAPinto.net explains the basics in “Estate Planning–Getting Your Affairs in Order Does Not Need to be Complicated or Expensive.”

Everyone needs an estate plan consisting of the following documents: a Last Will and Testament, a General Durable Power of Attorney and an Advance Medical Directive or Living Will.

Unless your estate is valued at more than $11.58 million, you may not be as concerned about federal estate taxes right now, but this may change in the near future. Some states, like New Jersey, don’t have any state estate tax at all. There are states, like Pennsylvania, which have an “inheritance” tax determined based on the relationship the person has with the decedent. However, taxes aren’t the only reason to have an estate plan.

If you have young children, your will is the legal document used to tell your executor and the court who you want to care for your minor children by naming their guardian. The will is also used to explain how your minor children’s inheritance should be managed by naming trustees.

Why do you need a General Power of Attorney? This is the document that you need to name a person to be in charge of your affairs, if you become incapacitated and can’t make or communicate decisions. Without a POA in place, no one, not even your spouse, has the legal authority to manage your financial and legal affairs. Your family would have to go to court and file a guardianship action, which can be expensive, take time to complete and create unnecessary stress for the family.

An Advance Medical Directive, also known as a Living Will, is used to let a person of your choice make medical decisions, if you are unable to do so. This is a very important document to have, especially if you have strong feelings about being kept alive by artificial means. The Advance Medical Directive gives you an opportunity to express your wishes for end of life care, as well as giving another person the legal right to make medical decisions on your behalf. Without it, a guardianship may need to be established, wasting critical time if an emergency situation occurs.

Most people of modest means need only these three documents, but they can make a big difference to protect the family. If the family includes disabled children or individuals, owns a business or real estate, there are other documents needed to address these more complex situations. However, simple or complex, your estate and your family deserve the protection of an estate plan.

Reference: TAPinto.net (Sep. 23, 2020) “Estate Planning–Getting Your Affairs in Order Does Not Need to be Complicated or Expensive”

Can I Fund a Trust with Life Insurance?

A trust is a legal vehicle in which assets are legally titled and held for the benefit of another party, the beneficiary, explains Forbes’ recent article entitled “How To Fund A Trust With Life Insurance.” The article says that trusts are often funded with a life insurance policy. This will provide assets to be used after the death of the insured for the benefit of their family. If you are a parent of minor children, the combination of life insurance and a trust may be the best way to make certain that your children have their financial needs satisfied and also make sure the assets are used in ways you want.

Trusts are either revocable or irrevocable. A revocable living trust is the most frequently used type of trust. It has some major benefits, like the ability to avoid probate, which can be an expensive and lengthy process. Assets in a revocable trust are accessible much more quickly than those left through a will.  Because they’re revocable, the person who creates the trust (the grantor) can also make adjustments to the trust, as their situation changes.

A grantor will fund the trust with assets for the trust beneficiaries. For parents of minor children, funding a trust using term life insurance is an inexpensive tactic to make certain that your children are cared for after your death. Typically, each parent buys a life insurance policy, and in a two-parent household, usually each spouse names the other as the primary beneficiary with a revocable living trust as the contingent beneficiary.

If the second parents were to die, the life insurance policies would pay to the trust. The trustee would manage the trust assets for the minor children. Funding a trust with life insurance also benefits heirs, because it provides liquidity right after your death. Other assets like investment accounts and real estate can be very illiquid or have tax consequences. As a result, it can take a while to get to that equity.

On the other hand, term life insurance is a fast and tax-free funding way to build a trust. Purchase a term life policy that will last until your children are adults and out of college. In making the life insurance paid to a trust with your children as beneficiaries, you also have some control over the assets. If you name minor children as beneficiaries on a life insurance policy, they won’t be able to use the money until they are an adult. Some children may also not be financially responsible enough to manage money as young adults in their 20s.

If you already own a life insurance policy and want to create a trust, you can transfer ownership of the policy to the trust. Work with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: Forbes (Sep. 17, 2020) “How To Fund A Trust With Life Insurance”

The Biggest Social Security Blunders in Retirement

Fox News’ recent article entitled “These mistakes will take a huge bite out of your Social Security income” shares what we should and shouldn’t do.

  1. Not working a full 35 years. Your Social Security benefits are calculated based on your wages during your 35 highest-paid years of work. However, for each year you don’t have an income on record, you’ll have a $0 factored into your personal equation. That’s going to mean a lower monthly benefit. Therefore, to avoid this, be sure you put in a full 35 years in the workforce. It may actually help boost your benefit, by avoiding those dreaded $0 years. It will also potentially factor higher wages into your calculation.

Many people earn more money later in their careers. If your earnings are now at their highest, and you work another year to make it a full 35, you may be adding a salary that’s far more than what you earned 30 years before (even though your previous wages will be adjusted for inflation when determining what monthly benefit you get).

  1. Not delaying until your full retirement age to file. You won’t be entitled to collect all of your benefits until you reach full retirement age (FRA). Your FRA will depend on your year of birth, and if you were born in 1960 or later, it’s 67. Born in 1959 or before? It’s 66, or 66 and a number of months.

You can file for Social Security as early as age 62, but for each month you sign up prior to your FRA, your benefits are reduced on a permanent basis. That’s bad news if you don’t have a lot of money in retirement savings and need those benefits to ensure that you’re able to make ends meet in retirement.

  1. Delaying benefits beyond age 70. Just as you get the option to sign up for Social Security before FRA, you can also delay benefits past FRA and boost them by 8% a year in the process. But don’t postpone your filing too long! When you hit age 70, you stop accruing the delayed retirement credits that increase your benefits. Therefore, delaying beyond that point could mean missing out on income.
  2. Retire in a state that taxes your benefits. Social Security benefits may be taxed on the federal level, if your earnings exceed a certain threshold. However, some states also tax Social Security. These 13 states tax benefits to some degree: CO, CT. KS, MN, MO, MT, NE, NM, ND, RI, UT, VT, and WV. Some states have lower earner exemptions.

Don’t slash your Social Security income and struggle in retirement because of these mistakes.

Avoid these mistakes to be certain that you get as much money from Social Security as you’re entitled.

Reference: Fox News (Sep. 14, 2020) “These mistakes will take a huge bite out of your Social Security income’

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