If You Plan to Retire This Year, Be Prepared

If you’re sure that you are going to leave the working world and start your retirement life in 2020, better not put in your notice at work until you’ve done your homework. The Motley Fool article “Retiring in 2020? 3 Things You Need to Know” covers three important steps.

If you were born in 1958, then this is the year you celebrate your 62nd birthday—which means you are eligible to collect Social Security. However, if you do, your benefits will be reduced as you have not yet reached your “Full Retirement Age” or FRA. People born in 1958 need to be 66 and eight months to reach that important milestone. At that point, you can collect your full benefit. Collect earlier, and your monthly benefit is reduced for the rest of your life.

Born in 1954 or earlier? Full retirement age for you is 66, if you were born between 1943 and 1954. If if you were born at the tail end of this range, then you can collect your full Social Security benefit this year. However, it still may pay to hold off on claiming benefits.

The longer you can delay tapping your Social Security benefits, the better. From the time you reach your FRA until age 70, your monthly benefit grows by about 8% each year. Few investments today have that kind of guaranteed yield. Some advisors recommend tapping retirement accounts first and delaying Social Security benefits as long as possible. It’s worth taking a closer look to see how this can be of benefit.

If you are planning to retire, but you’re not 65, you’ll need to find and pay for health insurance until you celebrate your 65th birthday. You can enroll in Medicare a few months before your 65th birthday, but if you’re 62, then you have a three-year health insurance gap. Private health insurance is extremely expensive, there’s no way around it. Before putting in that letter to HR that you’re retiring, get some real numbers on this cost. If your employer will consider having you work part-time so that you can maintain your employer-covered health insurance, it may be a good idea.

If you’re closer to age 65, then COBRA is a consideration, although it may still be expensive. Typically, COBRA allows you to retain your existing health coverage if you change jobs, or are fired, for a certain amount of time. However, you have to pay for the full cost of health coverage.

If your gap is only three months, then COBRA might make sense. However, if your gap is a year or more, then you need to be realistic about health coverage options. Pre-existing conditions and a limited marketplace for individual coverage may make this the reason you keep working until 65. You should also check the rules of going from COBRA to Medicare—they may not be the same as going from an employee plan to Medicare.

The more prepared you are for retirement, the more you’ll be able to relax and enjoy this new phase of your life. If these three points have made it clear that you’re not yet able to retire, understand that it is better to work a little longer to reach your eventual goal of retirement, then to find yourself struggling to pay bills and jeopardize a lifetime of savings because of unexpected expenses.

Reference: The Motley Fool (Dec. 28, 2019) “Retiring in 2020? 3 Things You Need to Know”

Why a Will Is the Foundation of an Estate Plan

An estate planning lawyer has many different tools to achieve clients’ estate planning goals. However, at the heart of any plan is the will, also known as the “last will and testament.” Even people who are young or who have modest levels of assets should have a will—one that is legally valid and up to date. For parents of young children, this is especially important, says the article “Wills: The Cornerstone of Your Estate Plan” from the Sparta Independent. Why? Because in most states, a will is the only way that parents can name guardians for their children.

Having a will means that your estate will avoid being “intestate,” that is, having your assets distributed according to the laws of your state. With a will, you get to determine who is to receive your property. That includes your home, car, bank and investment accounts and any other assets, including those with sentimental value.

Without a will, your property will be distributed to your closest blood relatives, depending upon how closely related they are to you. Few individuals want to have the state making these decisions for their property. Most people would rather make these decisions for themselves.

Property can be left to anyone you choose—including a spouse, children, charities, a trust, other relatives, a college or university, or anyone you want. There are some limits imposed by law that you should know about: a spouse has certain rights to your property, and they cannot be reversed based on your will.

For parents of young children, the will is used to name a legal guardian for children. A personal guardian, who takes personal custody of the children, can be named, as well as a property guardian, who is in charge of the children’s assets. This can be the same person, but is often two different people. You may also want to ask your estate planning attorney about using trusts to fund children’s college educations.

The will is also a means of naming an executor. This is the person who acts as your legal representative after your death. This person will be in charge of carrying out all of your estate settlement tasks, so they need to be someone you trust, who is skilled with managing property and the many tasks that go into settling an estate. The executor must be approved by the probate court, before they can start taking action for you.

There are also taxes and expenses that need to be managed. Unless the will provides directions, these are determined by state law. To be sure that gifts you wanted to give to family and loved ones are not consumed by taxes, the will needs to indicate that taxes and expenses are to be paid from the residuary estate.

A will can be used to create a “testamentary trust,” which comes into existence when your will is probated. It has a trustee, beneficiaries and directions on how distributions should be made. The use of trusts is especially important, if you have young children who are not able to manage assets or property.

Note that any assets distributed through a will are subject to probate, the court-supervised process of administering and proving a will. Probate can be costly and time-consuming, and the records are available to the public, which means anyone can see them. Many people chose to distribute their assets through trusts to avoid having large assets pass through probate.

Talk with an experienced estate planning attorney about creating a will and the many different functions that the will plays in settling your estate. You’ll also want to explore planning for incapacity, which includes having a Power of Attorney, Health Care Proxy, and Medical Directives. Estate planning attorneys also work on tax issues to minimize the taxes paid by the estate.

Reference: Sparta Independent (Dec. 19, 2019) “Wills: The Cornerstone of Your Estate Plan”

How Does a Conservatorship Work?

Millennials, now in their 30s, need to begin thinking about caring for their boomer parents, as medical, financial and mental health needs come up. For lucky families, this will mean conversations with travel agents and financial advisors. For those not so fortunate, it will mean conversations with doctors, nursing home staff and, in some cases, with lawyers regarding conservatorships, says KAKE.com in the article “What is a Conservatorship and How Does It Work?”

A conservatorship is a form of legal guardianship of an adult. The conservator has legal authority over certain parts of the person’s life. It may be a “limited conservatorship,” where only specific matters are under the conservator’s control, like health or finances. The “full conservatorship” gives the conservator complete control over the person’s life, in the same way that a parent has legal control over a child.

Conservatorship is granted when the person no longer has the capacity to make decisions on their own behalf. In almost all cases, this is based on their mental capacity. While it can happen, physical incapacity rarely is acceptable for conservatorship to be awarded.

Some of the common reasons for conservatorship by way of mental incapacity, include if the person is in a coma, suffers from Alzheimer’s, dementia or severe mental illness, or has a permanent or genetic mental disability that prevents them from ever reaching legal maturity or independence.

Conservatorship is a legal proceeding, which must be granted by an officer or appointee of the court. It’s typically handled by a state probate court or family court. Hearings are usually held by a judge or a magistrate. A conservatorship may be part of estate planning. Most conservatorships require medical paperwork, but in all instances, the potential ward must have the opportunity to be heard by the decision maker and to present their case, if they wish, as to why conservatorship should not be granted. An individual also has the right to challenge the conservatorship, in court, at any time, if they disagree.

Power of Attorney may be used to accomplish some of the things that would be accomplished by a conservatorship. A POA gives a person the ability to make legally binding decisions for someone else, and the scope can be narrow or broad. The POA, however, is granted at the discretion of the person giving another person this power.

An estate planning attorney will be able to discuss all of the rights, responsibilities and fiduciary obligations of a conservatorship. Most have had experience with conservatorship and will be able to help the family and the individual make informed decisions in the best interest of the individual.

Reference: KAKE.com (December 11, 2019) “What is a Conservatorship and How Does It Work?”

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?

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”

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”

Preparing for Alzheimer’s

Once there has been a diagnosis of dementia, there are a number of issues that families need to address, including legal issues. The best way to approach this task, says being patient in the article “Alzheimer’s and the Law” is to meet with an estate planning attorney who can guide the family in planning for the future, and creating the needed documents.

The conversation will start with who should be named to two different kinds of power of attorney. One is for the durable power of attorney, which will give the named person the ability to manage any business decisions, sign contracts and deal with insurance companies. This document will need to be inclusive, so the agent can act for the person who is going to be incapacitated.

Next, there will need to be a healthcare power of attorney. It should be complemented by a living will, which states what kind of lifesaving measures you would want, if you were to be declared terminally ill. The healthcare power of attorney also allows a person to be named to make medical decisions, if the person with dementia can no longer make good decisions on their own behalf.

As long as the doctor has not yet declared the person incapacitated, they can sign the power of attorney for financial and health care. If the person has been declared incapacitated, then the family will need to go to court for a guardianship proceeding, so the court can declare who will be in charge of the person with dementia.

Some families prefer to have one person in charge of the loved one’s financial affairs and a second person to be their healthcare power of attorney. If there is a family member who is good with money and business, that person will do a better job than someone whose heart is in the right place but doesn’t manage money well. A nervous or easily excitable family member may also not be the best choice for healthcare power of attorney, especially if important decisions need to be made in a crisis situation.

Make sure that the people who are being considered for these tasks live near enough, so they can be available when needed. A child who lives on the other side of the country may want to be the decision maker, but if they are too far away, it will create more problems than it solves.

Before naming anyone to the power of attorney roles, speak with them about the situation, and be clear about what they will be expected to do. Clarify the difference between the two roles, and that of the executor. The executor is the person who is in charge of the person’s estate after they pass. They do not have an active role, while the person is living.

People generally don’t like to think about times when they may not enjoy good health, but this is a situation where waiting to address the issue can become extremely costly. A skilled estate planning attorney who works with families with dementia will understand the situation. They can be a valuable resource of information about other related services that will become needed over time.

Reference: being patient (August 22, 2019) “Alzheimer’s and the Law”

Who Looks Out for the Solo Senior?

She was a bit surprised, when she couldn’t find any. She then realized that it’s the adult children who push their aging parents into long-term care facilities. That’s who usually gets mom or dad to move, asks Market Watch in the article “Who watches out for childless retirees? How ‘solo agers’ can stay happy and safe.”

The adult children are the ones who badger their aging parents to leave their single family home and take up residence in a long-term care or senior living community. Those who don’t have children, or whose children are not a part of their lives, are more likely to encounter serious risks like isolation, financial elder abuse, malnutrition and other dangers.

It is the children who usually instruct mom or dad to hand over the keys to the car, who notice a decline in physical or mental abilities and identify sources for help, oversee their finances and supervise caretakers. A solo person who can no longer care for themselves, isn’t likely to have the ability to conduct a thorough study of possible living situations.

This is a tough but necessary scenario that single seniors need to be aware of. How can you stay safe and happy, while preparing for care you may need in the future?

Start by building a community. Without an extended social network, seniors can find themselves isolated and lonely as friends die or move in or near their grandchildren. By strengthening ties with the remaining relatives and cultivating new friends, especially those who are younger, it’s possible to build a new network. The same thing applies to making friends with neighbors, the people you see in the coffee shop every day and other acquaintances. You don’t need to be best friends with everyone. However, a big network of what are called “weak tie relationships” can be powerful.

Be smart about where you live. A walk-up in a five-story building may be great when you are in your thirties, forties or even fifties. However, at some point, that’s just not a good idea. If you live in the suburbs, what will happen when you can’t drive anymore? Not everyone wants or can afford to live in a planned community. There are some cities that have organized villages for aging in place, where there are services available for seniors, including local transportation to and from the local senior centers. Co-housing is another option, where people build clusters of homes around shared spaces. In some communities, there are “naturally occurring” retirement communities where residents socialize and look out for each other. They might crop up in any kind of living situation, from apartment buildings, condos, townhouses, etc. Don’t overlook the “Golden Girls” lifestyle—sharing a home with other seniors.

Either enlist or if need be, hire future guardians. Estate planning attorneys recommend that all adults have documents in place that permit someone else to make decisions, in case of incapacity at any age. However, for solo seniors, it is especially important to have powers of attorney for finances and health care. Without these documents, someone else who may not even know you will be given control over your finances and health care. Becoming a ward of the court is not an ideal situation for anyone, especially a vulnerable senior.

Choosing someone to take on these roles is not always easy. It may be a younger friend or a trusted relative (preferably younger) may be willing. In California and Arizona, it is possible to hire a licensed fiduciary for this role. Your estate planning attorney may be able to put you in touch with an appropriate professional.

Reference: Market Watch (Aug. 9, 2019) “Who watches out for childless retirees? How ‘solo agers’ can stay happy and safe”

What are the Details of the New SECURE Act?

The SECURE Act proposes a number of changes to retirement savings. These include changes to parts of IRAs and 401(k)s. The Act is expected to be passed in some form. Some of the changes look to be common sense, like broadening access to IRAs and 401(k)s, as well as including updating the rules to reflect that retirement is now a longer period of life. However, with these changes come potential limitations with stretch IRAs.

Forbes asks in its recent article “Are Concerns Over Stretch IRAs And The SECURE Act Justified?” You should know that an IRA is a tax-wrapper for your investment that is sheltered from tax. Your distributions can also be tax-free, if you use a Roth IRA. That’s a good thing if you have an option between paying taxes on your investment income and not paying taxes on it. The IRA, which is essentially a tax-shield, then leaves with more money for the same investment performance, because no tax is usually paid. The SECURE act isn’t changing this fundamental process, but the issue is when you still have an IRA balance at death.

A Stretch IRA can be a great estate planning tool. Here’s how it works: you give the IRA to a young beneficiary in your family. The tax shield of the IRA is then “stretched,” for what can be decades, based on the principle that an IRA is used over your life expectancy. This is important because the longer the IRA lasts, the more investment gains and income can be protected from taxes.

Today, the longer the lifetime of the beneficiary, the bigger the stretch and the bigger the tax shelter. However, the SECURE Act could change that: instead of IRA funds being spread over the lifetime of the beneficiary, they’d be spread over a much shorter period, maybe 10 years. That’s a big change for estate planning.

For a person who uses their own IRA in retirement and uses it up or passes it to their spouse as an inheritance—the SECURE Act changes almost nothing. For those looking to use their own IRA in retirement, IRAs are slightly improved due to the new ability to continue to contribute after age 70½ and other small improvements. Therefore, most typical IRA holders will be unaffected or benefit to some degree.

For many people, the bulk of IRA funds will be used in retirement and the Stretch IRA is less relevant.

Reference: Forbes (July 16, 2019) “Are Concerns Over Stretch IRAs And The SECURE Act Justified?”

How Can I Avoid a Retirement Home and Live at Home?

Staying at home requires planning. The sooner you begin, the more prepared you’ll be, even if you’re around at 102.

The Washington Post’s article, “Aging in place helps you to avoid a retirement community or nursing home,” explains that there’s plenty of work to do.

You might start by remodeling or retrofitting your home to suit senior-specific issues, such as decreased mobility or impaired eyesight (think replacing a bathtub with a walk-in shower or improved lighting). Some seniors add a first-floor bedroom and bathroom and an outdoor ramp onto their homes. Other changes can include wider doorways (the better to potentially accommodate a wheelchair or walker), a bathroom with grab bars and an easy-access shower.

This is known as universal design, which means building or remodeling a home to accommodate all ages and abilities. It can usually be implemented or planned by builders or contractors who are Certified Aging in Place Specialists (CAPS), an educational designation offered by the National Association of Home Builders.

Even if you can’t afford a major remodel, there are some simple changes you can do, like installing shower grab bars or improving interior and exterior lighting to avoid falls and other accidents. You can also secure throw rugs to the floor with special two-sided tape to prevent slips.

You can speak with an elder law attorney about health agencies, resources for financial assistance, elder abuse prevention, as well as estate planning, Medicare, Medicaid and other state programs.

Keep busy by taking yoga at the local rec center, business or computer classes at the public library, or even getting a roommate to help combat loneliness and keep feeling connected and emotionally healthy.

For dining, in addition to the community-based food delivery from Meals on Wheels, you can get restaurant food or groceries delivered to your home by services, such as Uber Eats, Caviar and Peapod.

There are also a number of meal prep companies—Blue Apron, Hello Fresh, and others—that make it easier to put a healthy meal on the table, without the need to journey to the grocery store.

Reference: Washington Post (July 1, 2019) “Aging in place helps you to avoid a retirement community or nursing home”