Can A Cell Phone Video Become a Will?
Old woman making a statement with her smartphone

Can A Cell Phone Video Become a Will?

What if a grandmother made a statement, while in an intensive care unit, that she wanted everything she owned to go to a grandchild and a brother-in-law? What if that statement was captured on a cellphone as a video? The question was a real one, posed by a reader of My San Antonio in the article “Can a video be used as a Will?”

There are two reasons why a cellphone video is unlikely to be accepted as a will by any court. One is that the cellphone video does not follow the formality of how a will is created and executed. Another is the statute of frauds, which basically says that to be lawfully valid, certain promises must be in writing.

Not only does a will need to be in writing, it must show clear intent to dispose of assets after death. The writing must be dated and signed by the person who is making the promise (the testator). If the will is written by the testator in his or her handwriting, it is known as a “holographic” will. If the will is typed or in someone else’s handwriting other than the testator, which is known as a “formal will,” then it must also be signed by two independent witnesses and must be notarized. The person who is having the will created (again, the testator), must also have legal capacity for the will to be valid.

In some states, including Texas, there was a time when a spoken will, known an a “nuncupative will” could have been recognized. However, that is no longer the case and a verbal will is no longer valid. Even when a nuncupative will was accepted, it was only accepted for inexpensive personal effects, not large assets or real property.

Some states, including Florida and Nevada, now allow a person to make a will online or on their computer and never have it transferred to paper. These are called “digital” or “electronic” wills. In these cases, e-signatures are allowed to be used. Other states have considered bills allowing digital wills, but the bills did not pass. The Florida law allows the digital will to be e-signed, but it must be witnessed by two independent individuals and it must be e-notarized. It should be noted that the will process is not permitted to be used by a person, who is in an end-stage illness or who is legally considered a “vulnerable adult.”

In the state of Texas, the grandmother in the example above is considered to have died without a will, meaning that she died “intestate.” Texas law will determine how her assets are distributed, and that will depend on her relationships and her survivors. If she was married and all children are from that marriage, her assets go to her spouse. If she was married and had children from a prior marriage, her assets are split unevenly between those children and her spouse. If there is no spouse, assets go to her children. There is a tremendous burden placed on the heirs of those who die without a will, since it does take a long time to figure out who their heirs are.

If she had a properly executed legal will, all these issues would be moot. Anyone who owns a home needs to have a will, and this should have been something that was taken care of, long before she became ill.

For more information about Utah’s laws regarding video wills, consult an estate planning attorney.

Reference: My San Antonio (Feb. 18, 2019) “Can a video be used as a Will?”

Kids Grown Up? Protect Them with These Three Documents
Protect your family with these three documents.

Kids Grown Up? Protect Them with These Three Documents

Without the right documents in place, you do not have the legal right to protect your own children, once they turn 18, says The National Law Review in an unsettling but must-read article titled “Three Critical Legal Documents Every Parent Should Get in Place Now to Safeguard Their Adult Children.”

There are only three documents and they are fairly straightforward. There is no reason not to have them in place. If your adult child was incapacitated by an accident or an illness, you would want to speak with the medical staff to find out how they are and what decisions need to be made. Whether you were making a phone call or arriving at the hospital, a nurse or doctor would not be permitted to speak with you about your own adult child’s condition or be involved with making any medical decisions.

It sounds unreasonable, and perhaps it is, but that is the law. There are steps you can take to ensure that you are not in this situation.

HIPAA Authorization Form gives you the authority to speak with healthcare providers. This is a federal law (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) that safeguards who can access an adult’s private health data. HIPAA prevents healthcare providers from revealing any information to you or anyone else about a patient’s status. The practitioners could face severe penalties for violating HIPAA.

This is why you want to have a HIPAA authorization signed by your adult child and naming you as an authorized recipient.  This will give you the ability to ask for and receive information about your child’s health status, progress and treatment. This is especially important, if your child is unconscious or in an unresponsive state. The alternative? Going to court. That’s not what you want to be doing during a health emergency.

A Healthcare Power of Attorney needs to be in place, so you can be named his or her “medical agent” and have the ability to view their medical records and make informed decisions on their behalf. Without this (or a court-appointed guardianship), healthcare decisions will be in the hands of healthcare providers only. That’s not a bad thing, if you implicitly trust your child’s doctor. However, if your child is incapacitated in an out-of-town hospital with healthcare providers you don’t know, you will want to be able to make decisions on his or her behalf.

Note that physicians prefer a single medical agent, not a handful. The concern is that if time is a critical factor and a group of family members do not agree on care, it may compromise the healthcare services that can be provided. You can name multiple agents in priority order. A mother might be listed as the medical agent, and if she is unable or unwilling to serve, the second person would be the father.

The third document is a General Power of Attorney. This would give you the right to make financial decisions on your child’s behalf, if they were to become incapacitated. You would have the legal right to manage bank accounts, pay bills, sign tax returns, apply for government benefits, break or apply a lease and conduct activities on behalf of your child. Without this document, you won’t be able to help your child without a court-appointed conservatorship.

Keep in mind that these documents need to be updated every few years. If you try to use an older document, the bank or hospital may not accept them. Your adult child also has the ability to revoke these documents at any time, just by saying they revoke them or by putting it in writing. If you have an adult child living out of state, you want to have these documents prepared for your home state and their state of residence.

Finally, this is not a time to download forms and hope for the best. An estate planning attorney will know more specifically what forms are used in your state and help you make sure that they are prepared correctly.

Reference: The National Law Review (Feb. 11, 2019) “Three Critical Legal Documents Every Parent Should Get in Place Now to Safeguard Their Adult Children”

When Was the Last Time You Talked with Your Estate Planning Attorney?
48479279 - what you need to know

When Was the Last Time You Talked with Your Estate Planning Attorney?

If you haven’t had a talk with your estate planning attorney since before the TCJA act went into effect, now would be a good time to do so, says The Kansas City Star in the article “Talk to estate attorney about impacts of Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.” While most of the news about the act centered on the increased exemptions for estate taxes, there are a number of other changes that may have a direct impact on your taxes.

Start by looking at any wills or trusts that were created before the tax act went into effect. If any of the trusts use formulas that are tied to the federal estate tax exemption, there could be unintended consequences because of the higher exemption amounts.

The federal estate tax exemption doubled from $5.49 million per person in 2017 to $11.18 million per person in 2018 (or $22.36 million per couple). It is now $11.2 million per person in 2019 (or $22.4 million per couple).

Let’s say that your trust was created in 2001, when the estate tax exemption was a mere $675,000. Your trust may have stipulated that your children receive the amount of assets that could be passed free from federal estate tax, and the remainder, which exceeded the federal estate tax exemption, goes to your spouse. At the time, this was a perfectly good strategy. However, if it hasn’t been updated since then, your children will receive $11.4 million and your spouse could be disinherited.

Trusts drafted prior to 2011, when portability was introduced, require particular attention.

Two other important factors to consider are portability and step-up of cost basis. In the past, many couples relied on the use of bypass or credit shelter trusts that pay income to the surviving spouse and then eventually pass trust assets on to the children, upon the death of the surviving spouse. This scenario made sure to use the first deceased spouse’s estate exemption.

However, new legislation passed in 2011 allowed for portability of the deceased spouse’s unused estate exemption. The surviving spouse’s estate can now use any exemption that wasn’t used by the first spouse to die.

A step-up in basis was not changed by the TCJA law, but this has more significance now. When a person dies, their heir’s cost basis of many assets becomes the value of the asset on the date that the person died. Highly appreciated assets that avoided income taxes to the decedent, could avoid or minimize income taxes to the heirs. Maintaining the ability for assets to receive a step-up in basis is more important now, because of the size of the federal estate tax exemption.

Beneficiaries who inherit assets from a bypass or credit shelter trust upon the surviving spouse’s death, no longer benefit from a “second” step-up in basis. The basis of the inheritance is the original basis from the first spouse’s death. Therefore, bypass trusts are less useful than in the past, and could actually have negative income tax consequences for heirs.

If your current estate plan has not been amended for these or other changes, make an appointment soon to speak with a qualified estate planning attorney. It may not take a huge overhaul of the entire estate plan, but these changes could have a negative impact on your family and their future.

Reference: The Kansas City Star (Feb. 7, 2019) “Talk to estate attorney about impacts of Tax Cuts and Jobs Act”

Moving to a Care Community? Check the Fine Print
Group Of Senior Couples Enjoying Meal Together In an Assisted Living Facility

Moving to a Care Community? Check the Fine Print

Reading the fine print when purchasing a home in a retirement community or a care community is intimidating. The typeface is tiny, you’ve got boxes to pack and movers to schedule and, well, you know the rest. What most people do, is hope for the best and sign. However, that can lead to trouble, advises Delco Times in the article “Planning Ahead: Moving to a care community? Read the agreement.”

If you don’t want to read the fine print or can’t make head or tails of what you are reading, one option is to ask your estate planning attorney to do so. Without someone reading through and understanding the contract, you and your family may be in for some unpleasant surprises. Here are some things to consider.

What kind of a community are you moving into? If you are moving to a Continuing Care or Assisted Living Community, your documents will probably have provisions regarding health insurance, entry fees, deposits, a schedule of costs, if you need additional services, fees for moving to a higher level of care and provisions for refunds and estate planning.

When you enter an long-term care facility, nursing home, or Assisted Living facility, you may find yourself signing documents regarding everything from laundry policies, pharmacy choices, financial disclosures and statements of your rights as a resident. Not every document you sign will be critical, but you should understand everything you sign.

If moving into a nursing home that accepts Medicaid, you and your family need to know that nursing homes that accept Medicaid are not permitted to demand payment on admission from either an adult child or a power of attorney from their own funds. However, Pennsylvania does have support provisions regarding children, that are called “filial responsibility.” This should not be a problem, as long as you speak with an elder law attorney who can make sure you have completed the Medicaid application correctly and are in full compliance with all of the requirements.

If your adult children ask you to sign documents and “don’t worry” about what documents are, you may want to sit down with an experienced elder law attorney to review the documents. When someone is not trained to review these documents, they won’t know what red flags to look for.

If someone signs the document who is not the applicant/future resident, that person may become responsible for the costs, depending upon what role you have when you sign: are you a guarantor or indemnitor? That person typically agrees to pay after the applicant/resident’s funds are exhausted. The payments may have to come from their own funds. Sometimes the “responsible party” is simply the person who handles business matters on the applicant’s behalf. You’ll want to be sure that the person signing the papers understands what they are agreeing to.

Almost all agreements will say that the applicant, or the person receiving services, is responsible for payment from their own assets. However, if someone signing the documents is power of attorney, they need to be mindful of what they are signing up for.

If possible, the person who will receive services should be the one who signs any paperwork, but only after a thorough review from an experienced attorney.

Reference: Delco Times (Feb. 5, 20-19) “Planning Ahead: Moving to a care community? Read the agreement”

How Do I Prepare my Parents for Alzheimer’s?
Concerned aged mother and adult daughter discuss updating their estate planning documents and explore their options with regards to Alzheimer's

How Do I Prepare my Parents for Alzheimer’s?

Can your mom just sell her house, despite her diagnosis of Alzheimer’s?

The (Bryan TX) Eagle reports in the recent article “MENTAL CLARITY: Shining a light on the capacity to sign Texas documents” that the concept of “mental capacity” is complicated. There’s considerable confusion about incapacity. The article explains that different legal documents have a different degree of required capacity. The bar for signing a Power of Attorney, a Warranty Deed, a Contract, a Divorce Decree, or a Settlement Agreement is a little lower than for signing a Will. The individual signing legal documents must be capable of understanding and appreciating what he or she is signing, as well as the effect of the document.

The answer the question of whether the mom can sign the deed to her house over to the buyer.  is likely “yes.” She must understand that she’s selling her house, and that, once the document is signed, the house will belong to someone else. A terminal diagnosis or a neurodegenerative disease doesn’t automatically mean that an individual can’t sign legal documents. A case-by-case assessment is required to see if the document will be valid.

The fact that a person is unable to write his or her name doesn’t mean they lack capacity. If a senior can’t sign her name (possibly due to tremors or neurodegeneration), she can sign with an “X”. She could place her hand on top of someone else’s and allow the other person to sign her name. If this is completed before witnesses and the notary, that would be legal.

A hard part of Alzheimer’s is that a person’s mental clarity can come and go. Capacity can be fluid in the progress of a neurodegenerative or other terminal disease. Because of this, the best time to sign critical documents is sooner rather than later. No one can say the “window of capacity” will remain open for a certain amount of time.

Some signs should prompt you to move more quickly. These include things like the following:

  • Short-term memory loss;
  • Personality changes (e.g., unusual anger);
  • Confusing up or forgetting common-usage words and names; and
  • Disorientation and changes in depth perception.

Any of the signs above could be caused by Alzheimer’s, dementia, or many other problems. Talk to your, or your parent’s, physician and an elder law attorney. He or she can discuss the options, document your parent’s legal capacity, and get the right documents drafted quickly. Your elder law attorney can also give you information about planning for long term care options to consider and can help you understand the costs associated with long term care. 

Are Your Powers of Attorney ‘Hot’ Enough?

Many states, including Texas, allow people to give the agent named in their financial power of attorney what are referred to as “hot” powers, if they wish. This requires careful decision making, says the Glen Rose Reporter in an article that poses a question: “Should you add hot powers to your power of attorney?”

The “hot” powers are well-named, since they give a financial power of attorney considerable power. They allow the agent to create, amend, revoke or terminate a trust during the principal’s lifetime. The agent may also make a gift. In Texas, this is subject to the limitations under Texas Estates Code §751.032 and any special instructions, to create or change rights of survivorship, create or change a beneficiary designation and to authorize another person to exercise the authority granted under the power of attorney.

That is considerable leeway for an agent to be given during one’s lifetime.

In one case, a man decided that he wanted to give some of these “hot” powers to a power of attorney, but not all of them. Unless he made specific directions, he would be giving someone the ability to make gifts outright to individuals, to a trust, an UGMA (Uniform Gift to Minors Act) account or a qualified tuition program that meets the requirements of §529.

The attorney in this case advised the client that the gifts an agent can make, are limited to the dollar limits of the federal gift tax exclusion, or twice that, if the spouse agrees to a gift split as allowed under the Internal Revenue Code.

The gifts the agent can make are further limited to being consistent with the principal’s objectives, if the agent knows what those objectives are. However, if the agent does not know what those objectives are, he or she must still make sure the gift is aligned with the principal’s best interest, based on the value and nature of the principal’s property, foreseeable obligation and the need for maintenance.

The power of attorney in all cases needs to know what their responsibilities are, and if they are given “hot” powers, they need to be informed what those specific powers are. If the agent is someone other than a spouse or descendant, that agent may not make gifts to themselves. A spouse or descendant, however, could make gifts to themselves.

The man in this example wisely decided that while his son was very trustworthy and was going to be named his financial power of attorney, it would not be a good idea to place so much temptation in the young man’s path. Therefore, he instructed his attorney to modify the statutory form of the power of attorney, so his son is not permitted to make any gifts to himself.

Reference: Glen Rose Reporter (Jan. 3, 2019) “Should you add hot powers to your power of attorney?”

Is There an ADU in Your Future?

The idea of aging in place is something we’d all like to do. However, homes with many stairs or that are located in cold climates don’t always make this possible. One way that some families are addressing this wish to age in place: the Accessory Dwelling Unit, or ADU, according to Next Avenue in the article“Could an Accessory Dwelling Unit Help Your Aging Parent?” The flexibility—a home for mom for a few years, then used as an income-producing apartment—makes this an attractive option.

Sometimes referred to as a “granny pod,” the ADU is usually a small structure in a backyard, with little more than a bathroom, sleeping quarters and a kitchen. They are basically “tiny homes,” the very small living quarters that some people are opting for, in place of sprawling homes.

A survey by AARP found a third of adults 50 and older would be open to living in an ADU. Why not? It’s a great way to have some degree of privacy, while living near, but not with, children and grandchildren.

Communities are starting to update their zoning laws to permit the construction of ADUs, especially where housing costs are high. In Los Angeles, ADUs have been legal since 2017, when new laws about their use went into effect and the increase of ADU construction permits increased by 1,000%. Housing codes changes are being examined in many other cities, including Boston, Denver, Chicago, Denver, Seattle and Washington DC, say industry experts.

Some barriers still exist, and they may not go away quickly. One is that ADUs are not cheap, even thought they are small. Many cost $150,000 or more. Much of the cost is to hook the little house up to local utilities, as well as the cost of construction. Most lenders don’t offer ADU mortgages, so payment tends to be with cash or with a home equity line of credit. This restricts the number of people who can afford an ADU.

Local communities not behind the concept of an ADU, may be concerned about the little houses being less like a tiny home and more like a shack, having a negative impact on neighborhood looks and values. Zoning codes, even those that are changing, are strict about maintaining the structures.

If your family would benefit from an ADU, start by checking with your town’s planning or building department. If the community permits the use of ADUs, you’ll want to find local builders who have constructed ADUs before. Some builders may not be interested in what they perceive as a very small project.

As boomers grow and strive to maintain their independence, expect to see more communities embrace the use of ADUs.

Reference: Next Avenue (Jan. 2, 2019) “Could an Accessory Dwelling Unit Help Your Aging Parent?”

Who Will Pay for Your Nursing Home Care?

It’s hard for everyone in the family, when a beloved parent or grandparent must enter a nursing home, because they can no longer live on their own. Often the result of a physical or mental decline, the difficultly is compounded by worries about how to pay for the care, reports The Ledger in the article “The Law: Are you eligible for Medicaid nursing home coverage?”

Once health insurance coverage ends, the cost of care becomes enormous, with the monthly cost for a private-pay resident at nursing homes often exceeding $10,000 a month. What usually happens? Residents can’t afford the care and only have two options: qualify for Medicaid Nursing Home coverage, or sell every asset they can, impoverish the spouse, and ask adult children or other family members for help. Most people contact an elder law attorney and explore becoming eligible for Medicaid Nursing Home coverage.

Let’s use the state of Florida for an example of how to qualify for this coverage. A person must pass a three-part test that examines their assets, income and health, at the time the application is filed.

Income. As of Jan. 1, 2019, you could have a maximum of $2,313 per month in income (before deductions) to be eligible for Medicaid Nursing Home coverage. If your income was above that number, then legal planning is necessary to create a qualified income trust. Timing is extremely important, because if the trust is not set up correctly or in a timely fashion, you will not qualify for Medicaid.

There is a common mistake made about a spouse’s income being too high. It’s happily not true: a spouse’s income can be unlimited, and it does not impact a Medicaid applicant’s eligibility for benefits.

Assets. As of Jan. 1, 2019, you may have a maximum of $2,000 of countable assets and be eligible for Medicaid Nursing Home coverage. If the assets are above that threshold, there are a number of acceptable legal options to help the individual become eligible. There are two types of asset classes to consider when applying for Medicaid Nursing Home coverage: countable and non-countable.

Some non-countable assets are as follows: In Florida, homestead property up to $585,000 in value, one automobile, a prepaid burial contract and term life insurance without a cash value. Countable assets include bank accounts, investment accounts, life insurance with cash value, CDs and annuities.

As of Jan. 1, 2019, a spouse may have a maximum of $126,420 of countable assets, without having an impact on their spouses’ Medicaid eligibility.

An elder law attorney should be consulted to help the family understand the income and asset tests and create a strategy to help the individual qualify, if they anticipate needing Medicaid Nursing Home coverage. It’s best to do this well in advance, if possible.

ReferenceThe Ledger (Jan. 9, 2019) “The Law: Are you eligible for Medicaid nursing home coverage?”