Top Four Facts to Know about Estate Planning

Estate planning can save your family the stress of court cases and family feuds before the process of settling your estate begins. A plan that you create will provide tremendous peace of mind to those who are left behind. The sorrow of losing a loved one is more than enough for a family to experience, says NewsGram, in the article 4 Things You Must Know About Estate Planning.” You had better to have a plan to ensure that your estate is executed with as little acrimony as possible.

Estate planning focuses on planning for how an individual’s assets will be preserved, managed and distributed after their death. It also addresses how the person’s financial life, including their property, is to be managed, in the event they become incapacitated because of an accident or an illness. This is done with the help of an experienced estate planning attorney.

The core of estate planning while you are living, is to protect your assets, protect your estate from having to pay unnecessary taxes and protects you and your wishes, if you are incapacitated or pass away. Here are four key things everyone should keep in mind while preparing their estate plan.

Age should not be a factor. Anyone who is of legal age and owns anything has an estate. An estate refers to anything of value that you own. It does not mean a $10 million mansion. A home, a car, bank accounts, retirement accounts and personal possessions make up an estate, regardless of their size or value. Once you have assets, you need an estate plan. We don’t know when we are going to die, but we can be sure that if you have no estate plan, the state will determine who receives your assets. You may want to make those decisions for yourself. That’s what an estate plan does.

You need an estate planning attorney. Estate planning crosses into several different legal practice areas. Asset management, tax planning, real estate, guardianship and other areas need to be addressed by a legal professional who understands how these elements all work together. An estate planning attorney has a professional responsibility to help you document your wishes for incapacity and death.

However, they do more than that. The estate planning attorney will help you fine-tune your wishes, gain clarity on what you want to happen during life and death and translate that into the legal language that ensures that your wishes are achieved.

Planning helps avoid or minimize probate. Depending on where you live, probate can be a simple process or one that takes a long time. The estate planning attorney will help you plan to pass your assets to your spouse or the next generation to avoid going through the court process known as probate. This is a process of authenticating your will, verifying that the assets in the will are correctly named, paying off any outstanding tax balances and approving the distribution of the assets. With a good estate plan, you can make this a simple process.

An estate plan works to minimize family squabbles. Disagreements over estates, including personal possessions as well as money, routinely tears families apart. You don’t have to be wealthy or even a celebrity to have a family that is fractured over a misunderstanding or someone feeling like they were not treated fairly. This is another area where an experienced estate planning attorney can help bring you through the process of distributing assets, with a deep dive into how your decisions may be received by various family members.

To get started, contact an experienced estate planning attorney in your community. If you have an estate plan but haven’t reviewed it in more than four years, it’s time for an update. A number of laws have changed on the federal level that may require some changes to your estate plan. If you have had any major life events, you also need a review.

Reference: NewsGram (June 5, 2019) 4 Things You Must Know About Estate Planning.”

What Does ‘Getting Your Affairs in Order’ Really Mean?

That “something” that happens that no one wants to come out and say is that you are either incapacitated by a serious illness or injury or the ultimate ‘something,’ which is death. There are steps you can take that will help your family and loved ones, so they have the information they need and can help you, says Catching Health’s article “Getting your affairs in order.”

Start with the concept of incapacity, which is an important part of estate planning. Who would you want to speak on your behalf? Would that person be the same one you would want to make important financial decisions, pay bills and handle your personal affairs? Does your family know what your wishes are, or do you know what your parent’s wishes are?

Financial Power of Attorney. Someone needs to be able to pay your bills and handle financial matters. That person is named in a Financial Power of Attorney, and they become your agent. Without an agent, your family will have to go to court and get a conservatorship. This takes time and money. It also brings in court involvement into your life and adds another layer of stress and expense.

It’s important to name someone who you trust implicitly and whose financial savvy you trust. Talk with the person you have in mind first and make sure they are comfortable taking on this responsibility. There may be other family members who will not agree with your decisions, or your agent’s decisions. They’ll have to be able to stick to the course in the face of disagreements.

Medical Power of Attorney. The Medical Power of Attorney is used when end-of-life care decisions must be made. This is usually when someone is in a persistent vegetative state, has a terminal illness or is in an irreversible coma. Be cautious: sometimes people want to appoint all their children to make health care decisions. When there are disputes, the doctor ends up having to make the decision. The doctor does not want to be a mediator. One person needs to be the spokesperson for you.

Health Care Directive or Living Will. The name of these documents and what they serve to accomplish does vary from state to state, so speak with an estate planning attorney in your state to determine exactly what it is that you need.

Health Care Proxy. This is the health care agent who makes medical decisions on your behalf, when you can no longer do so. In Maine, that’s a health care advance directive. The document should be given to the named person for easy access. It should also be given to doctors and medical providers.

DNR, or Do Not Resuscitate Order. This is a document that says that if your heart has stopped working or if you stop breathing, not to bring you back to life. When an ambulance arrives and the EMT asked for this document, it’s because they need to know what your wishes are. Some folks put them on the fridge or in a folder where an aide or family member can find them easily. If you are in cardiac arrest and the DNR is with a family member who is driving from another state to get to you, the EMT is bound by law to revive you. You need to have that on hand, if that is your wish.

How Much Should You Tell Your Kids? While it’s really up to you as to how much you want to share with your kids, the more they know, the more they can help in an emergency. Some seniors bring their kids with them to the estate planning attorney’s office, but some prefer to keep everything under wraps. At the very least, the children need to know where the important documents are, and have contact information for the estate planning attorney, the accountant and the financial advisor. Many people create a binder with all of their important documents, so there are no delays caused in healthcare decisions.

Reference: Catching Health (May 28, 2019) “Getting your affairs in order.”

Long-Term Care Costs and Your Estate Plan

There are many misunderstandings about long-term or nursing home care and how to plan from a financial and legal standpoint. The article “Five myths about nursing home costs and estate planning” from The Sentinel seeks to clarify the facts and dispel the myths. Some of the truths may be a little hard to hear, but they are important to know.

Myth One: Before any benefits can be received for nursing home care, a married couple must have spent at least half of their assets and everything but $120,000. If the person receiving nursing home care is single, they must spend almost all assets on the cost of care, before they qualify for aid.

Fact: Nursing homes have no legal duty to advise anyone before or after they are admitted about this myth.

Several opportunities to spend money on items other than a nursing home, include home improvements, debt retirement, a new car and funeral prepayment. An elder law attorney will know how to use a Medicaid-compliant annuity to preserve assets, without spending them on the cost of care, depending on state law.

There are people who say that an attorney should not help a client take advantage of legally permitted methods to save their money. If they don’t like the laws, let them lobby to change them. Experienced elder law and estate planning attorneys help middle-class clients preserve their life savings, much like millionaires use CPAs to minimize annual federal income taxes.

Myth Two: The nursing home will take our family’s home, if we cannot pay for the cost of care.

Fact: Nursing homes do not want and will not take your home. They just want to be paid. If you can’t afford to pay, the state will use Medicaid money to pay, as long as the family meets the eligibility requirements. The state may eventually attach a collection lien against the estate of the last surviving homeowner to recover funds that the state has used for care.

A good elder law attorney will know how to help the family meet those requirements, so that the adult children are not sued by the nursing home for filial responsibility collection rights, if applicable under state law. The attorney will also know what exceptions and legal loopholes can be used to preserve the family home and avoid estate recovery liens.

Myth Three. We’ve promised our parents that they’ll never go to a nursing home.

Fact: There is a good chance that an aging parent, because of dementia or the various frailties of aging, will need to go to a nursing home at some point, because the care that is provided is better than what the family can do at home.

What our loved ones really want is to know that they won’t be cast off and abandoned, and that they will get the best care possible. When home care is provided by a spouse over an extended period of time, often both spouses end up needing care.

Myth Four: I love my children equally, so I am going to make all of them my legal agent.

Fact: It’s far better for one child to be appointed as the legal agent, so that disagreements between siblings don’t impact decisions. If health care decisions are delayed because of differing opinions, the doctor will often make the decision for the patient. If children don’t get along in the best of circumstances, don’t expect that to change with an aging parent is facing medical, financial and legal issues in a nursing home.

Myth Five. We did our last will and testament years ago, and nothing’s changed, so we don’t need to update anything.

Fact: The most common will leaves everything to a spouse, and thereafter everything goes to the children. That’s fine, until someone has dementia or is in a nursing home. If one spouse is in the nursing home and receiving government benefits, eligibility for the benefits will be lost, if the other spouse dies and leaves assets to the spouse who is receiving care in the nursing home.

A fundamental asset preservation strategy is to make changes to the will. It is not necessary to cut the spouse out of the will, but a well-prepared will can provide for the spouse, preserve assets and comply with state laws about minimal spousal election.

When there has been a diagnosis of early stage dementia, it is critical that an estate planning attorney’s help be obtained as soon as possible, while the person still has legal capacity to make changes to important documents.

The important lesson for all the myths and facts above: see an experienced estate planning elder law attorney to make sure you are prepared for the best care and to preserve assets.

Reference: The Sentinel (May 10, 2019) “Five myths about nursing home costs and estate planning”

Think It’s Elder Abuse? Here’s What You Need to Know

If you take those numbers for a single county in California, and multiply them across the nation, you’ll get a clear understanding of how our nation is aging and the number of vulnerable people susceptible to elder abuse in the coming years. With the growth of older adults, the risk will grow, reports Event-News Enterprise in the article “How to Recognize, Prevent and Address Elder Abuse.”

There are a number of types of elder abuse: physical, emotional, neglect and financial abuse. Overmedicating a resident of a care facility is one form of physical abuse. Self-neglect occurs due to physical or mental decline or from the senior’s inability to pay for their medications.

It’s estimated that 11% of all elder abuse cases in the United States occur in California. Financial elder abuse is the fastest growing form of elder abuse in the country.

Elder abuse is also the most unreported crime. There are a few reasons for this: the senior is embarrassed at having been taking advantage of. When the abuser is a family member, or a caregiver, the senior is often afraid to report the person for fear of being harmed. They are reluctant to report a family member. And they are reluctant to report a person they have come to depend upon for care. Who will take care of them?

The most common types of elder abuse are the romance scam, the grandparent/friend/family member facing an immediate emergency, imposter scams (Social Security or IRS scams), employment scams and sweepstakes/lottery/prizes scams.

To combat elder abuse, reporting all and any types of abuse is critical. Physical elder abuse must be reported to Adult Protective Services (APS) or the local police department. Reports to APS are kept confidential. Anyone who is a victim of financial scam or fraud should contact the local law enforcement, APS or the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Think of it this way: you are not only defending yourself, but you may be protecting someone else from being scammed.

Sometimes people can get their money back, but it is difficult. The best way to prevent elder abuse is to be educated and forewarned about the scams, so as not to become a victim.

Most nursing care facilities or hospitals have an ombudsman or patient representative office. Contact the office—most offer the ability to remain anonymous.

Elder abuse is a terrible shame, when people take advantage of those who are least able to protect themselves. With strong public outreach and education programs, seniors who are aware of the scams and their own vulnerabilities will be better protected and able to defend themselves.

Reference: Event-News Enterprise May 29, 2019 “How to Recognize, Prevent and Address Elder Abuse.”

Do Veterans Need to Pay for Help to Apply for Benefits?

The Tribune-Review’s article, “Veterans don’t need to pay for help to apply for benefits in Pa,” explains that the issue of military veterans being charged when applying for benefits is a common problem in Pennsylvania. There are about 800,000 veterans in the Keystone State.

The article warns that there are still some who attempt to profit, by assisting veterans to sign up for their benefits.

Vets should never have to pay to apply.

In January, an Allegheny County company was fined $10,000 after an employee fraudulently represented that he was an accredited veteran service officer. Some of the claims handled by the Allison Park firm were from Westmoreland County.

Veterans should ask for assistance only from an accredited veteran service officer, an attorney accredited by the VA, or an accredited claims agent. These agents provide veterans and their dependents free assistance to identify, determine eligibility for and apply for a wide range of benefits on the local, state and federal levels. That benefits include the following:

  • Burial allowances;
  • Grave markers and headstones properly requested and placed;
  • The Disabled Veterans Real Estate Tax Exemption Program;
  • Veterans Emergency Assistance;
  • Pensions for blind and paralyzed veterans;
  • The Education Gratuity Program;
  • Service connected disability and non-service connected disability pensions;
  • Federal health care benefits; and
  • Survivor benefits.

You may be eligible for VA benefits, if you’re a uniformed servicemember, veteran, or spouse, child, or parent of a deceased or disabled servicemember or veteran.

A summary of benefits can be found at the Veterans Affairs website: https://benefits.va.gov/BENEFITS/benefits-summary/SummaryofVABenefitsFlyer.pdf.

Reference: (The Tarentum, PA) Tribune-Review (May 17, 2019) “Veterans don’t need to pay for help to apply for benefits in Pa”

Power of Attorney: Why You’re Never Too Young

When that time comes, having a power of attorney is a critical document to have. The power of attorney is among a handful of estate planning documents that help with decision making, when a person is too ill, injured or lacks the mental capacity to make their own decisions. The article, “Why you’re never too young for a power of attorney” from Lancaster Online, explains what these documents are, and what purpose they serve.

There are three basic power of attorney documents: financial, limited and health care.

You’re never too young or too old to have a power of attorney. If you don’t, a guardian must be appointed in a court proceeding, and they will make decisions for you. If the guardian who is appointed does not know you or your family, they may make decisions that you would not have wanted. Anyone over the age of 18 should have a power of attorney.

It’s never too early, but it could be too late. If you become incapacitated, you cannot sign a POA. Then your family is faced with needing to pursue a guardianship and will not have the ability to make decisions on your behalf, until that’s in place.

You’ll want to name someone you trust implicitly and who is also going to be available to make decisions when time is an issue.

For a medical or healthcare power of attorney, it is a great help if the person lives nearby and knows you well. For a financial power of attorney, the person may not need to live nearby, but they must be trustworthy and financially competent.

Always have back-up agents, so if your primary agent is unavailable or declines to serve, you have someone who can step in on your behalf.

You should also work with an estate planning attorney to create the power of attorney you need. You may want to assign select powers to a POA, like managing certain bank accounts but not the sale of your home, for instance. An estate planning attorney will be able to tailor the POA to your exact needs. They will also make sure to create a document that gives proper powers to the people you select. You want to ensure that you don’t create a POA that gives someone the ability to exploit you.

Any of the POAs you have created should be updated on a fairly regular basis. Over time, laws change, or your personal situation may change. Review the documents at least annually to be sure that the people you have selected are still the people you want taking care of matters for you.

Most important of all, don’t wait to have a POA created. It’s an essential part of your estate plan, along with your last will and testament.

Reference: Lancaster Online (May 15, 2019) “Why you’re never too young for a power of attorney”

End of Life Planning to Care for Loved Ones During Grief

It’s definitely an uncomfortable thing to do. However, making funeral arrangements for yourself eliminates a lot of stress and anxiety for the family members, who are left to guess what you may have wanted. This, says the Leesville Daily Leader in the article “Planning for the end of your life” lets you make the decisions.

Here are some of the things to consider:

  • Do you want to be buried or cremated?
  • Do you want a funeral or a memorial service?
  • What music do you want played?
  • Do you want flowers, or would you prefer donations to a charity?
  • Do you want people to speak or prefer that only a religious leader speak?
  • What clothing do you want to be buried in?
  • Have you purchased a plot? A gravestone?
  • Who should be notified about your death?
  • Do you want an obituary published in the newspaper?

There are also estate matters that need to be attended to before you pass. Do you have a will, power of attorney, healthcare power of attorney, or a living will? Make sure that your family members or your executor know where these documents can be found.

If you do not have an estate plan in place, now is the time to meet with an estate planning attorney and have a plan created.

Your family will also need to be able to access information about your accounts: investment accounts, credit cards, utility bills, Social Security, pension, retirement funds and other assets and property. A list of the professionals, including your estate planning attorney, CPA and financial advisor, along with the names of your healthcare providers, will be needed.

If you are a veteran, you’ll need to have a copy of your DD-214 in your documents or let family members know where this is located. They will need it, or the funeral home will need it, when applying for burial benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs and the National Cemetery Administration.

If you wish to be buried in a national cemetery, you’ll need VA Form 40-10007, Application for Pre-Need Determination of Eligibility for Burial in a VA National Cemetery. This must be completed and sent to the National Cemetery Scheduling Office. Include a copy of the DD-214 with the application.

Your family may find discussing these details difficult, but when the time comes, they will appreciate the care that you took, one last time, to take care of them.

Reference: Leesville Daily Leader (May 1, 2019) “Planning for the end of your life”

What If Your Executor Doesn’t Want to Serve?

When you’ve finally come to determine who you trust enough to serve as your executor, you’ll need to take the next step. It involves having a conversation with the person about what you are asking them to do. You’ll need to ask if they are willing, says the Pocono Record in the article “Don’t assume person is willing to be your executor.” People are often flattered at first when they are asked about this role, but if they don’t fully understand the responsibilities, they may decide not to serve just when you need them the most.

Once your executor has agreed to act on your behalf and you have a last will and testament prepared by an estate attorney, tell your executor where your will is stored. Remember that they need to have access, in addition to knowing where the document is. If the will is kept at home in a fire-proof box or a document box that is locked, make sure to tell them where the key is located.

If you feel that the will would be safer in a bank’s safe deposit vault, you have a few additional tasks to complete. One is to make sure that your executor will be able to access the safe deposit box. That may mean adding them to the list of people who have access. They may be technically permitted to enter the box with a bank representative solely for the purpose of obtaining the last will and testament.  However, you should check with your branch first.

Once they have the last will and testament and it is filed for probate, the Register of Wills issues Letters Testamentary, which says that the executor has the authority to open the safe deposit box to inventory its contents, after proper notice is given to the state’s authorities. The executor must complete an inventory form for the authorities and any personal property in the safe deposit box must be appraised for fair market value as of the date of death. Inheritance tax will need to be paid on the value, if there is any due.

Communication is very important in the executor’s role. You may or may not want to allow them to see the will before you pass, but they will need to know where the original document can be found.

To make the next part of the executor’s job easier, create an inventory of your assets and include information they will need to complete their task. They’ll also need to know contact information and account numbers for homeowners and car insurance, veterans’ benefits, credit cards, mortgage, pensions, retirement accounts and any other assets.

Some people store their information on their computer. However, if the executor cannot access your computer or cannot get into the computer because they don’t have your password, you may want to create a hard copy document, as well as keeping information on your computer.

Taking on the role of an executor is a big job. You can show your appreciation, even after you are gone, by making all preparations for the information needed.

Reference: Pocono Record (May 1, 2019) “Don’t assume person is willing to be your executor”

Suggested Key Terms: Executor, Last Will and Testament, Safe Deposit Box, Letters Testamentary

Retirement-Age Workers Crack the 20% Mark

At some point last century, single income families vanished.  It now seems the idea of Americans being able to retire after age 65 may be headed in the same direction. For the first time in 57 years, the participation rate in the work world of people of retirement age has gone to more than 20%, says Crain’s New York Business in the article “America’s elderly are twice as likely to work now than in 1985.”

As of February 2019, the ranks of people who are 65 and older who are retirement age and either employed or seeking employment has doubled from a low of 10% in 1985. The biggest group of older workers? Those who have a college degree. The share of employees age 65 and older with at least an undergraduate degree is now at 53%, up from 25% in 1985.

The dramatic increase has pushed the demographics inflation-adjusted income to an average of $78,000, which is 63% higher than what older workers earned in 1985. By comparison, American workers below age 65 saw their average income increase only by 38% over the same period.

A study by United Income, which drew on data from the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, shows a mismatch between older workers who need the money the most and those who are college educated and still working.

The wealthier, college-educated workers who are in better health are working, but the less-educated workers are more in need of the income.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects the aging baby boomers to continue to represent the strongest growth in the labor force participation through 2024. At that point, they’ll be between 60–78. Many will likely continue to work, even after starting to receive Social Security benefits.

The outlook for retirement for all Americans is not great. Most people will need at least 80% of their pre-retirement income to maintain their lifestyles, when they stop working. Social Security only covers about 40-50%. The typical worker on the bottom half of the income distribution has no retirement savings and is completely dependent upon Social Security.

People in the middle range have a median of $60,000 saved, so they are not really prepared for retirement either.

The top 10% of earners have a median amount of $200,000 saved. While this number does not include real estate or other tangible assets (and it does not include any potential inheritances), they aren’t fully ready either.

With most experts recommending people have at least $1-2 million saved to retire comfortably, it’s no wonder that most Americans will be working well into their so-called “golden years.”

Reference: Crain’s New York Business (April 22, 2019) “America’s elderly are twice as likely to work now than in 1985”

What is Congress Doing for Seniors?

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Democrat from Maryland, informed the House Democratic Caucus in an April 25th “Dear Colleague” letter that he intends to bring H.R. 1994,the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act of 2019, to the House floor in May.

Think Advisor’s recent article, “SECURE Act to Get House Vote in May,” explains that the SECURE Act passed the House Ways and Means Committee on April 2. There’s been action on the companion bill—the Retirement Enhancement and Savings Act (RESA) of 2019. That legislation has yet to be scheduled by the Senate Finance Committee.

In discussing the actions taken during the first 100 days of the 116th Congress, Representative Hoyer said that the House will soon take up H.R. 9, the Climate Action Now Act, “to affirm the principles of the Paris Climate Agreement, in spite of President Trump’s pledge to withdraw the United States.”

Hoyer signaled that a vote on the SECURE Act would follow “over the coming work period,” and noted that with the flood insurance program set to expire at the end of May, “I expect the House to take action to address that as well.”

Hoyer said in the next few weeks, “as committees continue to markup legislation, the House will also take up legislation to strengthen the Affordable Care Act and to address rising prescription drug costs.”

Another possibility for consideration in May by the full House is Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters’ Consumers First Act, H.R. 1500. That bill passed out of that committee on March 28. Waters’ bill is aimed at reversing the damage done to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, under former acting director Mick Mulvaney.

The Senior Security Act of 2019 would require the SEC to create a Senior Investor Taskforce. That bill could be up for a House vote very soon. The House docket also has a resolution on Supporting the Protection of Elders Through Financial Literacy.

The bill includes a provision requiring law enforcement and regulatory agencies to work together to understand and detect elder frauds and scams.

Reference: Think Advisor (April 29, 2019) “SECURE Act to Get House Vote in May”