Making a Fresh Start for 2020? Here’s Help

Some people like to start their New Year’s off with a clean slate, going through the past year’s documents and organizing, tossing, or shredding anything they don’t absolutely need. However, many don’t, in part because we’re not sure exactly what documents we need to keep, and which we can toss. This article from AARP Magazine provides the missing information so you can get started: “When to Keep, Shred or Scan Important Papers.”

Tax Returns. Unless you’re planning on running for office, the last three years of tax returns and supporting documents are enough. That’s the window the IRS has to audit taxpayers. But there are some exceptions: if you are self-employed or have a complex return, double that number to six years, which is how much time the IRS has to audit you, if it suspects something’s fishy.

Regardless of how you earn your income, visit MySocialSecurity.gov account before shredding to make sure that your income is being accurately recorded. Having your tax records in hand will make it easier to get any figures fixed.

As for documents regarding home ownership, keep records related until you sell the house. You can use home-improvement receipts to possibly reduce taxes at that time.

Banking and Investments. If you or your spouse might be applying for Medicaid to pay nursing home costs, you’ll need to have five years of financial records. That includes bank statements, credit card statements, and statements from brokerage or financial advisors. This is so the government can look for any asset transfers that might delay eligibility.

If that’s not the case, then you only need banking and financial statements for a year, except for those issued for income-related purposes to provide the IRS with a record of tax-related transactions. Your bank or credit card issuer may have online statements going back several years online. However, if not, download statements and save them in a password protected folder on your home computer.

Stocks and bonds purchases need to be kept for six years after filing the return reporting the sale of the security. Again, this is for the IRS.

If you have a stack of cancelled checks, shred them. Most every bank and credit union today have an electronic version of your checks.

Medical Records. These are the documents you want to organize and keep indefinitely, especially if you have had a serious illness or injury. The information may make a difference in how your physicians treat you in the future, so normal or not, hang on to the following documents: surgical reports, hospital discharge summaries and treatment plans for major illnesses. Put these in a password-protected folder in your computer or a secure cloud-based account, so they can be shared with future healthcare providers. You should also keep immunization and vaccination records. The goal is to have your own medical records and not to rely on your doctor’s office for these documents.

Maintain proof of payments to medical providers for six years, with the relevant tax return, in case the IRS questions a health care deduction. If you have questions consult your elder law attorney.

Reference: AARP Magazine (August 5, 2019) “When to Keep, Shred or Scan Important Papers”

From Gentle Persuasion to a No-Nonsense Approach, Talking About Estate Plans

Sometimes the first attempt is a flop. Imaging this exchange: “So, do you want to talk about what happens when you die?” Answer: “Nope.” That’s what can happen, but it doesn’t have to, says The Wall Street Journal’s recent article “Readers Offer Their Advice on Talking to Aging Parents About Estate Plans.”

Many people have successfully begun this conversation with their aging parents. The gentle persuasion method is deemed to be the most successful. Treating elderly parents as adults, which they are, and asking about their fears and concerns is one way to start. Educating, not lecturing, is a respectful way to move the conversation forward.

Instead of asking a series of rapid-fire questions, provide information. One family assembled a notebook with articles about how to find an estate planning attorney, when people might need a trust, or why naming someone as power of attorney is so important.

Others begin by first talking about less important matters than bank accounts and bequests. Asking a parent for a list of utility companies with the account number, phone number and if they are paying bills online, their password, is an easy entry to thinking about next steps. Sometimes a gentle nudge, is all it takes to unlock the doors.

For some families, a more direct, less gentle approach gets the job done. That includes being willing to tell parents that not having an estate plan or not being willing to talk about their estate plan is going to lead to disaster for everyone. Warn them about taxes or remind them that the state will disburse all of their hard-earned assets, if they don’t have a plan in place.

One son tapped into his father’s strong dislike of paying taxes. He asked a tax attorney to figure out how much the family would have to pay in estate taxes, if there were no estate plan in place. It was an eye-opener, and the father became immediately receptive to sitting down with an estate planning attorney.

A daughter had tried repeatedly to get her father to speak with an estate planning attorney. His response was the same for several decades: he didn’t believe that his estate was big enough to warrant doing any kind of planning. One evening the daughter simply threw up her hands in frustration and told him, “Fine, if your favorite charity is the federal government, do nothing…but if you’d rather benefit the church or a university, do something and make your desires known.”

For months after seeing an estate attorney and putting a plan in place, he repeated the same phrase to her: “I had no idea we were worth so much.”

Between the extremes is a third option: letting someone else handle the conversation. Aging parents may be more receptive to listening to a trusted individual, who is of their same generation. One adult daughter contacted her wealthy mother’s estate planning attorney and financial advisor. The mother would not listen to the daughter, but she did listen to her estate planning attorney and her financial advisor, when they both reminded her that her estate plan had not been reviewed in years.

Reference: The Wall Street Journal (December 16, 2019) “Readers Offer Their Advice on Talking to Aging Parents About Estate Plans”

I’m a Fiduciary—What Does That Mean?

There are any number of pitfalls that may occur when administering an estate, a trust or another person’s finances under a Power of Attorney (POA). Fiduciary duties are the highest under the law, and the fiduciary is legally required to put the interests of the person they are representing above their own. The most common problem for a fiduciary is not taking their responsibilities seriously enough, says the article “What does it mean to serve as a fiduciary? from the New Hampshire Union Leader.

You can avoid some common pitfalls, if you keep the following in mind:

Know the governing instrument. A fiduciary must abide by the terms of the governing instrument, which might be a Power of Attorney (POA), trust, or another legal document. The powers you hold are limited to those granted in the document. There are times when even though you have a power or the ability to do something, it’s not in the best interest of the grantor. Let’s say the trust gives you as a trustee the power to make distributions to a beneficiary. If the beneficiary has sufficient independent resources, doing so might be a breach of your duties. In the same way, the ability to make gifts that is given by a POA, doesn’t mean you should automatically start making gifts.

Maintain extremely detailed records. Do this for two reasons. You have a duty to do so, and you need good records in case anyone claims that you did something wrong. Make sure that your records have enough details so that any expense or expenditure can be documented and explained.

Transparency is the best approach. Every situation is different, and family dynamics differs, but if you can, speak with family members before making any transactions. If they object, you can decide whether or not to proceed, or to petition the probate court to give the court’s blessing in advance. In this case, it is better to ask permission in advance, than ask for forgiveness after the fact.

Never mix your personal or business funds with that of the estate. This is one of the biggest problems for people who have never been a fiduciary before. If you are a fiduciary for more than one estate, then you’ll need to have funds and property completely separate from each other.

Fiduciary duties need to be treated with great care to avoid any liability and litigation. If you are not prepared to be a fiduciary, you could decide to decline the role. Speak with an estate planning attorney, if you have any reservations about taking on this responsibility.

Reference: New Hampshire Union Leader (December 7, 2019) “What does it mean to serve as a fiduciary?

Careful–the Silver Tsunami is Coming!

Approximately one in three homes in the U.S. is owned by someone who is 60 and older. As these millions of boomers decide it’s time to sell their homes and move to another location or to a retirement community, that will have an impact on housing markets, says the article from Market Watch “These housing markets will feel the biggest impact from the ‘Silver Tsunami.’”

In the ten years between 2007-2017, around 730,000 homes that had been owned by seniors went on the market every year. That number is expected to grow enormously over the next few decades. A news analysis from Zillow says that as many as 920,000 homes will go on the market between 2017-2027.  In the ten years after that, the figure may go as high as 1.17 million homes per year.

In total, says Zillow, almost a third of currently owner-occupied homes, around 20 million properties, will go on sale as the direct result of a boomers dying or deciding to move to a smaller home or retirement facility.

The wave won’t hit all at once, and it won’t strike all markets equally.

The biggest impact is expected to be in the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater metropolitan area in Florida. The Tucson, Arizona area is next in line, with the Miami-Ft. Lauderdale-Port Saint Lucie and Orlando metro areas following.

At the far end of the spectrum, Salt Lake City, Utah, is expected to see the smallest impact from the Silver Tsunami. Less than 20% of homes there are expected to go up for sale, because of being owned by aging boomers.

A few other cities are expected to escape this trend with little impact. They include Austin, Houston, and Dallas, all in Texas.

In other cities, there are micro-neighborhoods that will feel the impact within cities. For instance, in greater Phoenix, all will be well. However, in the towns of El Mirage or Sun City, nearly two-thirds of all homes will be on the market, as they are mainly retirement communities.

Those who are planning to relocate for retirement may want to keep the Silver Tsunami in mind, if their retirement finances depend upon the value of their homes.

Reference: Market Watch (December 3, 2019) “These housing markets will feel the biggest impact from the ‘Silver Tsunami’”

Not a Festive Thought, But A Kind One: Planning for Your Own Funeral

Leaving instructions for your funeral and burial wishes relieves loved ones of the burden of making decisions and hoping they are following your wishes. In addition, says the article “Important to provide instructions for preferred funeral, burial wishes” from The Leader, it also prevents arguments between relatives and friends who have their own opinions about what they think you may have wanted.

What often happens is that people make this information part of their estate plan. However, the will is usually not looked at until after the funeral. If your loved ones don’t know where your will is, then they certainly won’t know what your wishes were for the funeral.

Without clear written directions, spiritual practices or cultural traditions that are important to you, may not be followed.

An estate planning attorney can help you create a document that outlines your wishes and will have suggestions for how to discuss this with your family and where it should be located. The documents are different in each state, so be sure to work with a local lawyer. In New York State, there is a form that allows you to name an agent who will be in charge of your remains. You can give your instructions to that person or you can leave them in charge to make arrangements in their discretion.

In New York State, if this form is not completed, the following people, in descending order, have the right to control your remains: spouse, domestic partner, children, other family members and others.

For funeral planning, one option is to go to the funeral home and arrange to pay for the funeral and go to the cemetery and purchase a plot. A pre-paid irrevocable funeral trust purchased at a funeral home can also protects assets from nursing home costs, when applying for Medicaid.

Some people wish to donate their organs, which can be done on a driver’s license or in another statement. Donating your body for medical research or education will require researching medical schools or other institutions and may require an application and other paperwork that confirms your intent to donate your body. When you pass, your family member or whoever is in charge will need to contact the organization and arrange for transport of your remains.

A comprehensive estate plan does more than distribute assets at death. It also includes what a person’s wishes are for their funeral and burial wishes. Think of it as a gift to loved ones.

Reference: The Leader (December 7, 2019) “Important to provide instructions for preferred funeral, burial wishes”

How Did Alzheimer’s Impact the Estate Planning of These Famous People?

Forbes’ recent article, “Top 7 Celebrity Estates Impacted By Alzheimer’s Disease” looks at seven celebrity estates that were affected by Alzheimer’s disease.

  1. Rosa Parks. The civil rights icon died at 92 in 2005. She was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Legal battles over her estate continue to this day. Her estate plan left her assets to a charitable institution she created. However, her nieces and nephews challenged the validity of her will and trust, due to her mental deficiencies and allegations of undue influence. That claim was settled, but there have been fights over broken deals and leaked secrets, claimed mismanagement of her estate and assets, allegations of bribery and corruption and a battle over Rosa’s missing coat that she wore at the time of her famous arrest at the Alabama bus stop in 1955.
  2. Gene Wilder. Wilder’s widow–his fourth wife, Karen–and his adopted daughter didn’t fight over Gene’s estate after he died, which shows good estate planning. Wilder makes the list because of how his widow used her husband’s struggle—which she kept private while he was alive—to bring attention to the terrible disease, including permitting his Willy Wonka character to be used in a campaign to raise awareness.
  3. Aaron Spelling. The Hollywood producer left behind a reported fortune worth $500 million. His death certificate listed Alzheimer’s disease as a contributing factor. Spelling changed his estate plan just two months before he died, reducing the share to his daughter, actress Tori, and his son, Randy, to $800,000 each.
  4. Etta James. Legendary blues singer Etta James passed away in 2012, at 73. Her family said she had been struggling with Alzheimer’s disease for several years, and her illness ignited an ugly court battle between her husband of more than 40 years and her son from a prior relationship, over the right to make her medical and financial decisions, including control of her $1 million account. Her husband, Artis Mills, alleged that the power of attorney she signed appointing her son as decision-maker was invalid, because she was incompetent when she signed it. Mills sued for control of the money to pay for Etta’s care. After some litigation, Etta’s leukemia was determined to be fatal, which led to a settlement. Mills was granted conservatorship and permitted to control sums up to $350,000 to pay for Etta’s care for the last few months of her life.
  5. Peter Falk. The Lieutenant Columbo actor died at 83 in 2011, after living with Alzheimer’s disease for years. His wife Shera and his adopted daughter Catherine fought in court for conservatorship to make his decisions. Shera argued that she had power of attorney and could already legally make Peter’s decisions for him, which included banning daughter Catherine from visits. The judge granted Shera conservatorship, but ordered a visitation schedule for Catherine. However, a doctor, who testified at the hearing, said that Falk’s memory was so bad that he probably wouldn’t even remember the visits.
  6. Tom Benson. The billionaire owner of the New Orleans Saints and Pelicans was the subject of a lengthy and bitter court battle over control of his professional sports franchises, and hundreds of millions of dollars of other assets. Prior trusts, that he and his late wife established, left the sports franchises and other business interests to his daughter and two grandchildren. One of granddaughters operated the Saints as lead owner, until she was fired by her grandfather. Tom decided to take the controlling stock of the teams out of the trust and substitute other assets in their place, taking over control of the teams. However, his daughter and grandchildren fought the move. A 2015 court ruling declared Benson to be competent, despite allegations he suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. Benson then changed his will and trust and left everything to his third wife, Gayle. They all settled the dispute in 2017, leaving other assets to the daughter and grandchildren—but ultimately leaving Gayle in control of the Saints and Pelicans, after Benson’s death in 2018 at age 90.
  7. Glen Campbell. Campbell’s 2007 estate plan left out three of his adult children. They sued to challenge their disinheritance after he died. They dropped the case in 2018, without receiving a settlement. The fact that Campbell’s final will was drafted several years prior to his Alzheimer’s diagnosis was a critical factor in the outcome of the lawsuit.

The estate planning of these celebrities show the importance of proper estate planning, before it is too late. Wills and trusts that are created or changed after someone is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, or similar conditions are more apt to be challenged in court.

Click here If you are interested in learning more about estate planning, elder law, or long-term care planning.

Reference: Forbes (November 25, 2019) “Top 7 Celebrity Estates Impacted By Alzheimer’s Disease”

How Estate Planning Keeps the Peace for Blended Families

With the IRS’s announcement that the first $11.58 million (in 2020) of a taxable estate is free from estate taxes, most people won’t have to worry about paying estate taxes. Therefore, what’s the biggest reason to have an estate plan?

Earlier this year, a survey was conducted at the 53rd annual Heckerling Institute of Estate Planning, a prestigious legal and financial conference that attracts leaders in the field of estate planning. For the second year in a row, family conflict was identified as the biggest threat to estate planning, reports Investment News in the article Reducing potential family conflicts.”

Statistics show that there are more blended families in the U.S. than ever before.

The increase in blended families has led to an increase in family conflicts. While open and honest communication is the key to any kind of conflict resolution, it’s particularly sticky when it comes to blended families. For most families, it’s a good idea to talk openly about estate plans, rather than waiting until one of the spouses has passed and explaining to the biological and stepchildren how the assets are being distributed. Discussing the estate plan before anyone dies, at the very least gives everyone a chance to voice their opinions, even if no changes to the spouse’s plans are made.

How do you minimize conflicts within blended families? One way is with a prenuptial agreement, which is executed before marriage and clarifies the financial rights of each spouse, in the event of divorce or death. This is especially useful, when there is a disparity in wealth or age between the couple.

However, not everyone is willing to have a prenup. And even if they do, family conflicts can still crop up. Let’s say Gary and Helen are married, each with children from a previous marriage. Gary wants to give his entire estate to Helen when he dies. If Gary dies first, there’s no legal reason for Helen to give any of Gary’s assets to his biological children.

There are any number of solutions. If Gary really wants to cut his children out of his will, he can talk with them and explain his thinking. He can also have an estate planning attorney include a “no contest” clause in his will. If any named beneficiary challenges the will, they will lose any inheritance and are treated legally, as if they have predeceased the decedent. Gary could also use a revocable living trust, which would avoid the estate being probated and deny the children an opportunity to challenge his will.

A better solution would be to craft an estate plan that benefits both Gary and Helen’s children. Harry’s children could receive a partial outright distribution when Gary dies, with the remaining estate passing to Helen. A trust could be created for Helen’s benefit, but the remaining trust assets could go to Gary’s children when Helen dies.

There are many different ways to resolve this issue with an eye to minimizing conflict among children in blended families. If the parents are truly invested in keeping their children together as a family, it is worth the effort to create an estate plan that cares for the spouses and all of the children. An estate planning attorney can create a plan to accomplish your goals for the entire blended family.

Reference: Investment News (December 9, 2019) Reducing potential family conflicts

The Many Responsibilities of Inheriting a Home

When you inherit a home, there are three key factors to consider: the financial and legal responsibilities of the home, the tax liabilities of the home and what you’ll eventually do with the home. All of these different things relate to each other, explains Million Acres in “A Guide to What Happens When You Inherit a House.”

Let’s look at taxes first. There’s no federal tax associated with inheriting a house, but some states have inheritance taxes. For most situations, this inheritance does not lead to an immediate tax liability. When a property is inherited, the IRS establishes a fair market value for the property, which is the new basis for the property. This is a step-up basis. It is the valuation that is used to set future taxes, when the property is sold.

Capital gains are a tax relating to the profits generated from selling an asset, in this case, a house. The step up in basis means the heir only has to pay capital gains taxes, if the home is sold. The taxes will be the difference between the fair market value set at the time of the inheritance and the selling price.

If the property has a mortgage, heirs will need to know what type of mortgage it is and if it is assumable or due on sale. Most mortgage companies allow heirs to take over the payments, according to the original loan terms. However, if there is a reverse mortgage on the home, the unpaid balance is due when the person who took out the reverse mortgage dies. This usually requires the heirs to sell the home to settle the debt.

The condition of the inherited home often determines what heirs decide to do with the house. If it hasn’t been maintained and needs major work, it may be easier to sell it as-is, rather than undertake renovations. Heirs are responsible for taxes, insurance and maintenance. However, if the house is in good shape, it may make sense to keep it.

What happens when siblings inherit a house together? That can get complicated, if each person has a different idea about what to do with the house. One may want to sell now for cash, while another may want to rent it out for income. What ultimately happens to the property, may depend on how well the siblings communicate and make decisions together.

Often the best option is to simply sell the home, especially if multiple heirs are involved. Note that there are costs associated with the sale of the house. This includes any outstanding debts, like a mortgage, the cost of fixing up the home to prepare it for sale, closing costs and fees and real estate agent commissions. If there is a profit on the sale of the home from the tax basis at the time of inheritance, the heirs may need to pay short-term or long-term capital gains tax, depending on how long they held the property.

Talk with an estate planning attorney about managing the sale of the family home. They will be able to guide you, advise you about taxes and keep the family moving through the process of settling the estate.

Reference: Million Acres (December 4, 2019) “A Guide to What Happens When You Inherit a House”

Fighting Elder Abuse in Iowa

The missing money came from years of work on the family’s farm. It was supposed to be passed to her father. ,However the money had gone to her half-sister’s bank account. As reported by Iowa Public Radio’s article “Elder Abuse Remains A Legal Challenge in Iowa,” it took months to figure it all out.

Morrison accuses her sister of forging documents and lying to their mother—who spoke little English—to get the money. However, it took nearly three years before the sister was charged with first degree theft for taking the money without authorization. It was a long, complex paper trail with a detective who kept putting her off, telling her that he had homicides and human trafficking to deal with.

Morrison had to fight tooth and nail the whole way. That doesn’t surprise Chantelle Smith, an assistant attorney general in Des Moines, who has worked on elder abuse cases for almost twenty years. She sees cases like this all the time, she said. They are challenging and time intensive for law enforcement, especially in rural areas. If there are only two officers and two detectives, they may not have the time to investigate an elder abuse case.

The National Council on Aging reports that one in ten adults over age 60 has experienced some form of abuse, whether it is financial, physical, or emotional. However, less than 5 percent of these cases actually reaches litigation after a complaint is made, according to a University of Iowa report. Numbers from the Department of Human Services have risen to nearly 5,300 for adults over 60, compared to 860 just five years ago.

The state attorney general’s office just completed a three-year program funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to combat elder abuse. 600 law enforcement agents, doctors, victim services providers and other professionals were trained on how to identify and investigate elder abuse.

The grant was also used to create a community response team, which puts people from different professions together for regular meetings on how to address these issues. The grant was also used to pilot a “Later in Life” program in Dallas County that trains specialists to find and provide services to victims over age 50.

Polk County, the most highly populated in Iowa, is the only county with a unit dedicated to elder and dependent adult abuse.

The executive director of the Crisis Intervention and Advocacy Center in Adel, Iowa, said that in the past 17 months, nearly 400 people have been helped in 12 mostly rural counties. The center has three elder abuse specialists, who help victims in moving out of abuser’s homes, get them to appointments and help them file police reports, if they wish to do so. Few victims are willing to file a police report, but in nearly all cases, the abuser is a family member. They are fearful of retaliation, and of getting family members in trouble with the law.

The program is in limbo, since the federal grant ended in September and the agency is waiting for news about an extension.

Reference: Iowa Public Radio (November 19, 2019) “Elder Abuse Remains A Legal Challenge in Iowa”