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”

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 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.”

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?”

Americans Still Aren’t Planning for The After Life

Think Advisor reported on a survey conducted by a financial services firm that revealed good news and bad news about Americans and estate planning. In the article “Americans, Even Advisory Clients, Have a Big Estate Planning Problem: Survey,” the firm Edward Jones found that two-thirds of those with an advisor have not discussed estate goals and legacy plans. That’s the bad news. The good news is that 77% said estate and legacy strategies are important for everyone, not just wealthy individuals.

Most people do understand how a properly prepared estate plan puts them in control of what happens to the people that matter most to them, including minor children, their spouses and partners. It also indicates that they recognize how estate planning is necessary to protect themselves. That means having documents, like Power of Attorney and Medical Health Care Power of Attorney.

However, the recognition does not follow with the necessary steps to put a plan into place. That is the part that is worrisome.

Without a will, assets could be subject to the costly and time-consuming process of probate, where the entire will becomes a public document that anyone can look at. Nosy neighbors, creditors and relatives all having access to personal and financial information, is not something anyone wants to happen. However, by failing to plan, that’s exactly what happens.

The survey of 2,007 adults showed little sense of urgency to having legacy conversations. Only about a third of millennials and Gen Xers said they’d spoken with their advisors about the future. Surprisingly, only 38% of baby boomers had done so—and they are the generation most likely to need these plans in place in the immediate future.

Where do you start? Begin with the beneficiary designations. Check all investment accounts, bank accounts, insurance policies and retirement accounts. Most, if not all, of these financial documents should have a place to name a beneficiary, and some may permit a secondary beneficiary to be named. Make sure that you name a person you want to receive these assets, and that the person named is still in your life.

The beneficiary designation is more powerful than your will. The person named in the beneficiary designation will receive the asset, no matter what your will says. If you don’t want an ex to receive life insurance policy proceeds, make sure to check the names on your life insurance beneficiary designations.

Meet with an estate planning attorney to create an estate plan. If you haven’t updated your estate plan in three or four years, it’s time for an update. It’s equally important if you should become incapacitated and you want someone else to make financial and medical decisions on your behalf, to have up to date Power of Attorney and Health Care Proxy forms.

Reference: Think Advisor (September 16, 2019) “Americans, Even Advisory Clients, Have a Big Estate Planning Problem: Survey”

 

How to Choose an Estate Planning Attorney

Estate planning is a critical part of financial planning, but it is something that many Americans prefer to procrastinate about. However, drafting a will, health care proxy, and power of attorney are too important to leave to chance, says Next Avenue in the article “How to Find a Good Estate Planner.” An experienced estate planning attorney can help prevent critical mistakes and help you adjust your plan as circumstances change.

Here are a few tips:

Look for an estate planning attorney. An attorney who practices real estate law is not going to be up on all of the latest changes to estate and tax laws.

Next, determine if the attorney deals with families who are in similar situations to yours. An attorney who works with family-owned businesses, for instances, will be more helpful in creating an estate plan that includes tax and succession planning.

Experience matters in this area of the law. The laws of your state are just one of the many parts that the attorney needs to know by heart. The estate planning attorney who has been practicing for many years, will have a better sense of how families work, what problems crop up and how to avoid them.

Ask about costs. Don’t be shy. You want to be clear from the start what you should expect to be spending on an estate plan. The attorney should be comfortable having this discussion with you and your spouse or family member. Remember that the attorney will be able to understand the scope of work, only after they speak with you about your situation. What may seem simple to you, may be more complicated than you think.

If a trust is added, the fees are likely to increase. A trust can be used to avoid or minimize estate taxes, avoid probate, save on time and court fees and create conditions for the distribution of assets after you die.

Don’t neglect to have the attorney create a Power of Attorney form and any other advance directives you need. These vary by state, and you don’t want them to get too old, or they may become out of date.

Recognize that this is an ongoing relationship. Make sure that you are comfortable with the attorney, how the practice is run and the people who work there—receptionist, paralegals and other associates at the firm are all people you may be working with at one point or another during the process. You will be sharing very personal information with the entire team, so be sure it’s a good fit.

This is also not a one-and-done event. Having an estate plan is a lot like having a home—it requires maintenance. Every four years or so, or when large events occur in your life, you’ll need to have your will reviewed.

Your estate planning attorney should become a trusted advisor who works hand in hand with your accountant and financial advisor. Together, they should all be looking out for you and your family.

Reference: Next Avenue (September 10, 2019) “How to Find a Good Estate Planner”

A Will is the Way to Have Your Wishes Followed

A will, also known as a last will and testament, is one of three documents that make up the foundation of an estate plan, according to The News Enterprises’ article “To ensure your wishes are followed, prepare a will.” As any estate planning attorney will tell you, the other two documents are the Power of Attorney and a Health Care Power of Attorney. These three documents all serve different purposes, and work together to protect an individual and their family.

There are a few situations where people may think they don’t need a will, but not having one can create complications for the survivors.

First, when spouses with jointly owned property don’t have a will, it is because they know that when the first spouse dies, the surviving spouse will continue to own the property. However, with no will, the spouse might not be the first person to receive any property that is not jointly owned, like a car.  Even when all property is jointly owned—that means the title or deed to all and any property is in both person’s names –upon the death of the second spouse, a case will have to be brought to court through probate to transfer property to heirs.

Secondly, any individuals with beneficiary designations on accounts transfer to the beneficiaries on the owner’s death, with no court involvement. However, the same does not always work for POD, or payable on death accounts. A POD account only transfers the specific account or asset.

Other types of assets, such as real estate and vehicles not jointly owned, will have to go through probate. If the beneficiary named on any accounts has passed, their share will go into the estate, forcing distribution through probate.

Third, people who do not have a large amount of assets often believe they don’t need to have a will because there isn’t much to transfer. Here’s a problem: with no will, nothing can be transferred without court approval. Let’s say your estate brings a wrongful death lawsuit and wins several hundred thousand dollars in a settlement. The settlement goes to your estate, which now has to go through probate.

Fourth, there is a belief that having a power of attorney means that they can continue to pay the expenses of property and distribute property after the grantor dies. This is not so. A power of attorney expires on the death of the grantor. An agent under a power of attorney has no power, after the person dies.

Fifth, if a trust is created to transfer ownership of property outside of the estate, a will is necessary to funnel unfunded property into the trust upon the death of the grantor. Trusts are created individually for any number of purposes. They don’t all hold the same type of assets. Property that is never properly retitled, for instance, is not in the trust. This is a common error in estate planning. A will provides a way for property to get into the trust, upon the death of the grantor.

With no will and no estate plan, property may pass unintentionally to someone you never intended to give your life’s work to. Having a will lets the court know who should receive your property. The laws of your state will be used to determine who gets what in the absence of a will, and most are based on the laws of kinship. Speak with an estate planning attorney to create a will that reflects your wishes, and don’t wait to do so. Leaving yourself and your loved ones unprotected by a will, is not a welcome legacy for anyone.

Reference: The News Enterprise (September 22, 2019) “To ensure your wishes are followed, prepare a will.”

More Reasons to Review Your Estate Plan

Every estate planning attorney will tell you that they meet with people every day, who sheepishly admit that they’ve been meaning to review their estate plan, but just haven’t gotten to it. Let the guilt go.

Attorneys know that no one wants to talk about death, taxes or illness, says Wicked Local in the article “Five Reasons to Review Your Estate Plan.” However, there are five times when even an appearance before the Queen of England has to come second to reviewing your estate plan.

You have minor children. An estate plan for a couple with young children must do two very important things: address the care and custody of minor children should both parents die and address the management and distribution of the assets that the children will inherit. The will is the estate planning document used to name a guardian for minor children. The guardian is the person who will determine where your children will live and go to school, what kind of health care they receive and make all daily decisions about their care and upbringing.

If you don’t have a will, the court will name a guardian. You may not like the court’s decision. Your children might not like it at all. Having a will takes care of this important decision.

Your estate is worth more than $1 million. While the federal estate plan exemptions currently are at levels that remove federal tax from most people’s estate planning concerns, there are still state estate taxes. Some states have inheritance taxes. Whether you are married or single, if your assets are significant, you need an estate plan that maps out how assets will be left to your heirs and to plan for taxes.

Your last estate plan was created before 2012. There have been numerous changes in state estate tax laws regarding wills, probate and trusts in Massachusetts. This is not the only state that has seen major changes. There have been big changes in federal estate taxes. Strategies that were perfect in the past, may no longer be necessary or as productive because of these changes. While you’re making these changes, don’t forget to deal with digital assets. That includes email accounts, social media, online banking, etc. This will protect your fiduciaries from breaking federal hacking laws that are meant to protect online accounts, even when the person has your username and password.

You have robust retirement plans. Your will and trust do not control all the assets you own at the time of death. The first and foremost controlling element in your asset distribution is the beneficiary designation. Life insurance policies, annuities, and retirement accounts will be paid to the beneficiary named on the account, regardless of what your will says. Part of a comprehensive will review is to review beneficiary designations on each account.

You are worried about long-term care costs. Estate planning does not take place in a vacuum. Your estate plan needs to address issues like your plan, if you or your spouse need care. Do you intend to stay in your home? Are you going to move to live closer to your children, or to a Continuing Care Retirement Community? Do you have long-term insurance in place? Do you want to plan for Medicaid eligibility?

All of these issues need to be considered when reviewing and updating your estate plan. If you’ve never had an estate plan created, this is the time. Put your mind at ease, by getting this off your “to do” list and contact an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: Wicked Local (Aug. 29, 2019) “Five Reasons to Review Your Estate Plan”

Living Together Isn’t as Simple as You Think

One reason for the popularity of living together without marriage, is that many in this generation have experienced one or more difficult divorces, so they’re not always willing to remarry, says Next Avenue in the article “The Legal Dangers of Living Together.” However, like many aspects of estate planning, what seems like a simple solution can become quite complex. Unmarried couples can face a variety of problematic and emotionally challenging issues, because estate planning laws are written to favor married couples.

Consider what happens when an unmarried couple does not plan for the possibility of one partner losing the ability to manage his or her health care because of a serious health issue.

If a spouse is rushed to the hospital unconscious and there is no health care power of attorney giving the other spouse the right to make medical decisions on his or her behalf, a husband or wife will likely be permitted to make them anyway.

However, an unmarried couple will not have any right to make medical decisions on behalf of their partner. The hospital is not likely to bend the rules, because if a blood relative of the person challenged the medical facility’s decision, they are wide open to liability issues.

Money is also a problem in the absence of marriage. If one partner becomes incapacitated and estate planning has not been done, without both partners having power of attorney, an illness could upend their life together. If one partner became incapacitated, bank accounts will be frozen, and the well partner will have no right to access any assets. A court action might be required, but what if a family member objects?

Without appropriate advance planning, courts are generally forced to rely on blood kin to take both financial and medical decision-making roles. An unmarried partner would have no rights. If the home was owned by the ill partner, the unmarried partner may find themselves having to find new housing. If the well partner depended upon the ill partner for their support, then they will have also lost their financial security.

Unmarried couples need to execute key estate planning documents, while both are healthy and competent. These documents include a durable power of attorney, a medical power of attorney and a living will, which applies to end of life decisions. A living trust could be used to avoid the problem of finances for the well partner.

Another document needed for unmarried couples: a HIPAA release. HIPAA is a federal health privacy law that prevents medical facilities and health care professionals from sharing a patient’s medical information with anyone not designated on the person’s HIPAA release form. Unmarried couples should ask an estate planning attorney for these forms to be sure they are the most current.

If one of the partners dies, and if there is no will, the estate is known as intestate. Assets are distributed according to the laws of the state, and there is no legal recognition of an unmarried partner. They won’t be legally entitled to inherit any of the assets.

If a married partner dies without a will in a community property state, the surviving spouse is automatically entitled to inherit as much as half the value of the deceased assets.

Beneficiary designations usually control the distribution of assets including life insurance policies, retirement accounts and employer-sponsored group life insurance policies. If the partners have not named each other as beneficiary designations, then the surviving partner will be left with nothing.

The lesson for couples hoping to avoid any legal complications by not getting married, is that they may be creating far more problems than are solved as they age together. An experienced estate planning attorney will be able to make sure that all the correct planning is in place to protect both partners, even without the benefit of marriage.

Reference: Next Avenue (Aug. 28, 2019) “The Legal Dangers of Living Together.”