What is a Special Needs Trust?

Supplemental Security Income and Medicaid are critical sources of support for those with disabilities, both in benefits and services.

To be eligible, a disabled person must satisfy restrictive income and resource limitations.

That’s why many families ask elder law and estate planning attorneys about the two types of special needs trusts.

Moberly Monitor’s recent article, “Things to know, things to do when considering a special needs trust,” explains that with planning and opening a special needs trust, family members can hold assets for the benefit of a family member, without risking critical benefits and services.

If properly thought out, families can continue to support their loved one with a disability long after they’ve passed away.

After meeting the needs of their disabled family member, the resources are kept for further distribution within the family. Distributions from a special needs trust can be made to help with living and health care needs.

To establish a special needs trust, meet with an attorney with experience in this area of law. They work with clients to set up individualized special needs trusts frequently.

Pooled trust organizations can provide another option, especially in serving lower to more moderate-income families, where assets may be less and yet still affect eligibility for vital governmental benefits and services.

Talk to an elder law attorney to discuss what public benefits are being received, how a special needs trust works and other tax and financial considerations. With your attorney’s counsel, you can make the best decision on whether a special needs trust is needed or if another option is better, based on your family’s circumstances.

Reference: Moberly Monitor (October 27, 2019) “Things to know, things to do when considering a special needs trust”

Estate Planning, Simplified

Estate planning attorneys hear it all the time: “My children will have to figure it out,” “Everything will go to my spouse, right?” and “It’s just not a priority right now.” But then we read about famous people who don’t plan, and the family court battles that go on for years. Regular families also have this happen. We just don’t read about it.

A useful article from The Mercury titled “Estate planning basics and an estate attorney meeting preparation” reviews the basics of estate planning and explains how following the advice of an experienced estate planning attorney can protect families from the financial and emotional pain of an estate battle.

Estate planning is not just concerned with passing property and assets along to heirs. Estate planning also concerns itself with planning for incapacity, or the inability to act or speak on one’s own behalf. This is what happens when someone becomes too ill or is injured, although we usually think of incapacity as having to do with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia.

Lacking an estate plan, all the assets you have worked to accumulate are subject to being distributed by a court-ordered executor, who likely doesn’t know you or your family. Having an estate plan in place protects you and your family.

Living Will or Advanced Directive. A living will provides directions from a patient to their doctor, concerning their wishes regarding life support. This alleviates the family from having to make a painful and permanent decision. They will know what their loved one wanted.

Springing Durable Power of Attorney. This document will allow someone you choose to make financial and legal decisions on your behalf, if you are not able to. Some attorneys prefer to use the Durable Power of Attorney, rather than the Springing POA, since the Springing event may need a physician to state that the individual has become incapacitated, and it may require the court becoming involved. Powers of attorney can be drafted to be very limited in nature (i.e., to let one single task be accomplished), or very broad, allowing the POA to handle everything on your behalf.

Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care. This lets a person you name make health care decisions for you, if you are not able to do so. The decision-making power is limited to health care only.

Should Your Health Care POA and Your Financial/Legal POA be the Same Person? Deciding who to give these powers to can be difficult. Is the person you are considering equally skilled with health care, as they are with finances? Someone who is very emotional may not be able to make health care decisions, although they may be good with money. Think carefully about your decision. Just remember it’s better that you make this decision, rather than leaving it for the court to decide.

Last Will and Testament: This is the document people think of when they think about estate planning. It is a document that allows the person to transfer specific property, after they die in the way they want. It also allows the person to name a guardian for any minor children and an executor who will be in charge of administering the estate. It is far better that you name a guardian and an executor, than having the court select someone to take on these roles.

The estate planning process will be smoother, if you spend some time speaking with your spouse and family members to discuss some of the key decisions discussed above. Talk with your loved ones about your thoughts on death and what you’d like to have happen. Think about what kind of legacy you want to leave.

Estate battles often leave families estranged during a time when they need each other most. Spend the time and resources creating an estate plan with a qualified estate planning attorney. Leaving your family intact and loving may be the best legacy of all.

Reference: The Mercury (Oct. 27, 2019) “Estate planning basics and an estate attorney meeting preparation”

Good News About Gifts

It’s worthwhile to understand the rules about taxes that might be triggered by your generosity, says Forbes in the article “How To Avoid Taxes When Giving Big-Dollar Gifts.” Did you know that you can give any one person as much as $15,000 every year, without having to pay any gift taxes? You can give any number of people up to $15,000 and they don’t even need to be relatives.

Note that if and when any gift taxes are due, it’s the giver who pays any gift taxes, and not the recipient.

Therefore, if you think the world of your next-door neighbor and give him a gift of $20,000, you only owe taxes on the $5,000 above the $15,000 limit, and that’s also if your total gift exceeds your lifetime exclusion. You don’t have to be generous with cash only. Gifts can come in the form of stock, a boat or jewelry. Just remember to keep it under $15,000, so as not to incur any gift taxes.

The $15,000 limit is per person, not per couple, so if you want to give someone $15,000 and your spouse also wants to give them a $15,000 gift, that works. You can double the gift, while still staying under the annual limit.

If your gift is going to a charitable organization—a registered 501(c)(3), you won’t owe anything in gift taxes.

In addition to this $15,000 annual cap, wealthy gift givers should just keep in mind a $11.4 million maximum that is known as the lifetime exclusion. That’s the limit in 2019, and it will rise next year. This governs all the gifting you do during your lifetime. That’s outside of the annual exclusion of $15,000.

Anything more than that in the way of gifts, and you or your estate will have to pay estate tax. The top rate for the overage is high-40%. However, you’ll have to be mighty generous to get near that limit.

Here’s what’s nice: you won’t have to pay gift taxes every single time you go over that $15,000 limit. Let’s say you give your son $50,000 in 2019. Your gift is $35,000 above the ceiling, which is taxable.  However, rather than write a check for taxes to the IRS now, you count it against the $11.4 million lifetime exclusion. You now have $11.365 remaining.

The best way to go about gifting, is to make sure that your desired gifts are working in concert with your estate plan. One reason for gifting “with warm hands” is to reduce the taxable size of the estate, but there are many other ways to do this. There are also instances when gifts need to be reported to the IRS, even if no taxes are owed on them.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney about your gifting strategy, how it works with your estate plan and what gift tax forms you do, or do not, need to file.

Reference: Forbes (October 14, 2019) “How To Avoid Taxes When Giving Big-Dollar Gifts”

You Can Protect Pets after You’re Gone

Many of us consider our pets members of the family, but the law does not. In Arizona, pets are considered property, reports the East Valley Tribune in the article “Trusts can help provide for a pet’s future.” That means you can’t leave them your house, or open a bank account in their name.

However, you can take measures to protect your pets from what could happen to them after you pass away.

The simple thing to do is to make arrangements with a trusted family member or friend to take care of your pet and leave some money for their care. The problem is, there’s no way to enforce this, and it’s all based on trust. What happens if something unexpected happens to your trusted family member or friend, and they can’t care for your pet?

You’ve also given them funds that they are not legally required to spend on your pet.

Another choice is to leave your pet to a no-kill animal shelter. However, shelters, even no-kill shelters, can be stressful for animals who are used to a family home. There’s also no way to know when your pet will be adopted, since most people come to shelters to adopt puppies and kittens. There is also the issue of the shelter. Will it continue to operate after you are gone?

The best way that many people care for their pets, is by having a pet trust created. An estate planning attorney in your state will know if your state is among the many that allow a pet trust to be created to benefit your pet.

Start by naming a guardian for your pets, including instructions on whether your pets should be kept together. If you are not sure about a guardian, name additional guardians, in case one does not wish to serve. Then determine how much money you need to leave for the pet’s care. This will depend upon the animal’s age, health and life expectancy. There will need to be adequate funding for any medical issues. The trust can specify whether you want your pet to undergo expensive surgeries or whether they should be kept comfortable at any cost.

You’ll want to make sure to name a guardian who you are confident will care for your pet or pets in the same manner as you would.

A pet trust will require you to name a trustee, who will be in charge of disbursing the funds as they are needed and can also check on the pet to be sure they are well, and your instructions are being followed. The money in the trust must only be used by person for the care of the pets.

A pet trust will give you the peace of mind of knowing that your beloved companion animals are being cared for, even when you are not here to care for them. Speak with an estate planning attorney to learn how to make a pet trust part of your overall estate plan.

Reference: East Valley Tribune (Oct. 14, 2019) “Trusts can help provide for a pet’s future”

How Do I Change My Will?

Many parents have wills that were drafted years ago. Now they want to leave some specific items to people. Those are items not specifically mentioned in the will.

How can he change his will? Can he just write this list and sign it in front of a notary, or does he need to have his will changed?

If you’re the executor and don’t want your father to have to spend more money to add these items to the will, how is it done?

Dad can keep it simple, says nj.com’s recent article, “Does my dad need to pay money to get a new will?” However, doing so will likely cause more trouble for the executor.

The father can create a written list that disposes of tangible personal property, not otherwise identified and disposed of by the will.

The list must either be in the testator’s handwriting or be signed by the testator. This list also must describe the item and the recipient clearly. This list can be created before or after the will is signed.

This list can be amended or revoked. It should be kept with the will or given to the executor, so he or she knows about it and can ensure it is followed.

This list isn’t legally enforceable. The executor may elect to honor such a distribution, assuming the beneficiaries of the other tangible personal property and/or residuary estate agree. That’s so, even if the will doesn’t reference the written list but the testator nevertheless leaves the list.

However, it would not be in the interest of the executor and may be perceived as a breach of fiduciary duty to honor such a list and make such a distribution, if the beneficiaries named in the will object. No one wants to cause a fight over the items on the list, after the parent is gone.

As a result, it would be wiser to invest in having the items added to a revised will to protect the father’s wishes. If some of the beneficiaries got into a quarrel over the items on the list, it could result in a family fight that a properly drafted and executed revision or amendment could prevent.

If you would like assistance or have questions about changing you will click here to sign up for a consultation.

Reference: nj.com (October 14, 2019) “Does my dad need to pay money to get a new will?”

It’s Like Going to the Dentist: You Need to Get Your Estate Plan Ready

This is one of those things that you know you should do, but you keep finding reasons not to. After all, says the article Estate planning: How to quit stalling and write your willfrom The Orange County Register, none of us likes to think about dying or what might occur that would require someone else to raise our children.

What do you need to get motivated and stop procrastinating?

Remember who you are creating a will for. Think of it as a love letter to those you leave behind. You want to provide specific instructions for the people you love about what you want to happen to your minor children, beloved pets and possessions. You are saving them the worries of trying to guess what you would have wanted, and the cost of having to pay attorneys to clean up a mess after you have died.

Legal visualization. Think about what will happen in the absence of a will. Without an estate plan, a court will decide who will raise your children. State law determines who inherits your possessions, and maybe the laws won’t follow your wishes. Every estate planning attorney has stories of people who die without planning. A spendthrift heir can easily spend a lifetime’s work in less than two years. A trust can be used to control how and when money is distributed.

Simple works. Don’t let the term “estate plan” throw you. A basic estate plan is not as complicated or as expensive as you might think. An experienced estate planning attorney will guide you through the process. You should also think about the short-term: what do you want to happen, if you die sometime in the next five years? You can always update the plan, if things change.

Give yourself a realistic timeline. Setting specific dates for tasks to be done and breaking the project out into smaller parts, can make this easier to address. Start by getting an appointment with an attorney on your calendar. Then, set a date to have a conversation with your family members about guardians, charities and other intentions for your legacy. That might take place around Thanksgiving, when families have extended time together. By December 1, clarify and confirm your documents, and get them signed before the holidays. You should also make sure to retitle any assets that are being moved into trusts.

If you were to start today, you could be done by New Year’s Day, 2020. Wouldn’t that feel great?

Reference: The Orange County Register (October 1, 2019) Estate planning: How to quit stalling and write your will

How Can I Make Amendments to an Estate Plan?

If you want to make changes to your estate plan, don’t think you can just scratch out a line or two and add your initials. For most people, it’s not that simple, says the Lake County Record-Bee’s recent article “Amending estate planning documents.” If documents are not amended correctly, the resulting disappointment and costs can add up quickly.

If you live in California, for example, a trust can be amended using the method that is stated in the trust, or alternatively by using a document—but not the will—that is signed both by the settlor or the other person holding the power to revoke the trust and then delivered to the trustee. If the trust states that this method is not acceptable, then it cannot be used.

In a recent case, the deceased settlor made handwritten notes—he crossed out existing trust language and handwrote his revisions to a recently executive amendment to his trust. Then he mailed this document, along with a signed post-it note stuck on the top of the document, to his attorney, requesting that his attorney draft an amendment.

Unfortunately, he died before the new revision could be signed. His close friend, the one he wanted to be the beneficiary of the change, argued that his handwritten comments, known as “interlineations,” were as effective as if his attorney had actually completed the revision and the document had been signed properly. He further argued that the post-it note that had a signature on it, satisfied the requirement for a signature.

The court did not agree, not surprisingly. A trust document may not be changed, just by scribbling out a few lines and adding a few new lines without a signature. A post-it note signature is also not a legal document.

Had he signed and dated an attachment affirming each of his specific changes made to the trust, that might have been considered a legally binding amendment to his trust.

A better option would be going to the attorney’s office and having the documents prepared and executed.

What about changes to a will? Changing a will is done either through executing a codicil or creating and executing a new will that revokes the old will. A codicil is executed just the same way as a will: it is signed by the testator with at least two witnesses, although this varies from state to state. Your estate planning attorney will make sure that the law of your state is taken into consideration, when preparing your estate plan.

If you live in a state where handwritten or holographic wills are accepted, no witnesses are required and changes to the will can be made by the testator directly onto the original without a new signature or date. Be careful about a will like this. Even if legal, it can lead to estate challenges and family battles.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney, if you decide that your will needs to be changed. Having the documents properly executed in a timely manner ensures that your wishes will be followed.

Reference: Lake County Record-Bee (October 5, 2019) “Amending estate planning documents.”

How to Manage the Cost of Long Term Care

A single woman has seen her annual premiums for long-term care rise by more than 60% over the last six years. Her cost in 2018 was $2,721, up from $1,626 in 2013. She’s keeping her policy, reports CNBC in the article “Long-term care insurance costs are way up. How advisors can help clients cope”

For her, the price she is paying is worth the cost. However, these types of increases can take older individuals off guard, especially if they are living on a fixed income.

Last year, Genworth Financial received 120 approvals by state regulators to increase premiums on their long-term care insurance business. The weighted average rate increase was 45%. General Electric said earlier this year that it expects to raise premiums on its LTC policies by $1.7 billion in the next ten years. Insurers hold between $160 to $180 billion in LTC reserves, covering 6 to 7 million people, according to estimates from Fitch Ratings.

Elder care has also become increasingly expensive. The annual national median cost of a private room in a nursing home was $100,375 in 2018, according to Genworth Financial. The annual national median cost of a home health care aide was $50,336 in 2018.

Insurers entering the business in the 1990s and early 2000s didn’t anticipate that so many policyholders would continue to pay their premiums and eventually file claims. Fewer than 1% of policyholders have let their policies lapse, and this caught many companies off guard.

Low interest rates have also hurt overall profitability for the insurance companies.

About 40% of the bonds held in insurance companies’ general accounts had a maturity of more than 20 years at purchase, said the American Council of Life Insurers.

There are a few ways to tweak benefits to keep premiums more affordable, while continuing to have this essential coverage.

Daily Benefit. Policies sold in 2015 had an average daily benefit of $259. Paring down the daily benefit could keep premiums down.

Benefit Period. Insurance contracts sold in the 1990s and early 2000 could pay out for the remainder of a client’s life. Reducing that period to five or ten years could make premiums lower.

Inflation Protection. Inflation riders help stay ahead of the rising cost of care. For older policyholders, this might reduce the inflation protection.

Waiting Period. Most policies have a waiting period before benefits will be received. Adjusting this period of time might reduce benefits.

Policyholders are advised to speak with the insurance company directly, instead of relying on the premium increase notices. This may reveal more options that can be used to reduce the premiums, without sacrificing too much in the way of coverage. If you do not have long-term care insurance, there may still be options. Speak with a qualified elder law attorney to see if there are options available to you.

Reference: CNBC (September 8, 2019) “Long-term care insurance costs are way up. How advisors can help clients cope”

Protect Your Pets After You’re Gone

Currently, 67% of American households own at least one pet, and many people now consider long-term planning for them just as important as they would for two-legged family members, says The Atlanta Journal Constitution in the article “When you’re gone, what happens to your pets?”

If you think about it, our animal companions are completely vulnerable. They can’t take care of themselves. If something happens to their owners, it is possible that they could be taken to a shelter and euthanized. If you don’t want to be kept up at night worrying about this, a pet trust should be part of your conversation with an estate planning attorney.

Pets are viewed as valued members of the family in many homes. They provide companionship, and there have been studies showing that their presence helps to reduce stress. They often sleep in the same bed as their owners and go on vacations with their human family.

A 2018 Realtor.com survey found that 79% of millennials who purchased a home, said that they would pass on a home, no matter how perfect, if it did not meet the needs of their pets.

How can you protect your pets?

Understand that pets are considered property and have no legal rights. It’s entirely up to their owners to plan for their care. Some questions to consider:

  • What’s the difference between a pet trust and a will?
  • Do pet trust laws vary by state?
  • Is a trust independent from a will?
  • What happens to any funds left over, when the pet dies?
  • Can you tap 401(k) or other retirement funds to care for a pet?

To begin, look at the life expectancy of each pet and factor the average vet bill, food bill and any additional money in case of an emergency. The ASPCA says that the annual cost to care for a dog is between $737 to $1,404. Caring for a cat averages about $800. Of course, caring for cats or dogs depends upon the age, breed, weight and whether the animal has any medical needs. Some pets can live a very long time, like horses, and certain birds can live more than seventy years.

Next, identify caregivers who will commit to caring for your pets. You should then talk with your estate planning attorney. If you rely on an informal plan, your pet may be out of luck, if something happens to the caregivers, or if they have a change of heart.

A pet trust allows you to leave money to a loved one or friend to care for the pet in a trust that is legally binding. That means the money must be used for the pet’s care. It can be very specific, including how often the pet should go to the vet and what its standard of living should be. The executor or lawyer could go to court to enforce the contract.

Typically, the trustee holds property “in trust” for the benefit of the pet. Payments to a designated caregiver are made on a regular basis. The trust, depending upon the state in which it is established, continues for the life of the pet or 21 years, whichever comes first. Some states allow the pet trusts to continue beyond 21 years.

Speak with your estate planning attorney about protecting your pet. You’ll feel better knowing that you’ve put a plan into place for your beloved furry friends.

Reference: The Atlanta Journal Constitution (September 24, 2019) “When you’re gone, what happens to your pets?”