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.”

Don’t Forget to Update Your Estate Plan

There are some people who sign their will once in their life and never change it. They may have executed their estate plan late in life, or after they were diagnosed with a serious disease. However, even if your family life and finances are pretty basic, there are still changes in the law that you may need to incorporate into your estate plan.  Some of the people that you named in your will could also have died or moved away.

Forbes’ recent article, “Why You Should Change Your Will Now,” warns us that if you’ve taken the “one and done” approach to your estate plan, think again. In addition to the reasons already mentioned, your assets may have changed dramatically since you signed your will. The plan you put in place years ago, may not have considered new federal and state estate taxes. Now that you’ve accumulated significant wealth that will be passed on to your children, you might need to review your plans for that wealth for your children.

You may want to include grandchildren to help pay for their college education.

It is also not uncommon for parents to want to protect their children from themselves. This can be because of addiction issues or a lack of financial literacy. If that’s an issue, some parents elect to hold monies in trust for adult children, as a way to ensure that the funds will be there throughout the child’s lifetime.

A person’s estate plan should grow with them over time. An estate plan for a twenty-something may be very basic, but a newly-married couple will want to include provisions for their spouse. Parents need to think about providing for and protecting their children. Adult children have another set of concerns and you need prepare for the possibility of divorcing spouses, poor life choices, addiction issues and just poor money management. There are many stages in life when you may need to readjust the provisions for your children in your estate planning documents.

If you haven’t looked at your will in a while, do it now.

Reference: Forbes (August 27, 2019) “Why You Should Change Your Will Now”

What Goes into an Estate Plan?

The very idea of creating an estate plan can be intimidating, but this article from Brainerd Dispatch, “Navigating your estate plan,” wisely advises breaking down the process into smaller pieces, making it more manageable. By taking it step by step, it’s more likely that you’ll be comfortable getting started with the process.

Start with Beneficiaries. This may be the easiest way to start. If you have retirement accounts, like IRAs, 401(k)s, 403(b)s or other retirement accounts, chances are you have already written down the name of the person who you want to receive your assets, if you die. The same goes for life insurance policies. The beneficiary designation tells who receives the assets on your death. You should also note that there are tax ramifications, if you do not have a beneficiary. Your assets could become taxable five years after you die, without a named beneficiary.

Be aware that no matter what your will says, the name on your beneficiary designations on these accounts determines who gets the assets. You need to check on these to be sure the people you have named are still the people who you want to receive your accounts. You should review the designations every time you review your estate plan, which should be every three or four years.

Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way Forward. The will is a key document in your estate plan. It can be used to minimize taxes on your estate, ensure that your family has the management assistance they need, and, if you have minor children, establish who their guardians should be. Don’t neglect updating your will, whenever there is a big change to the law or changes in your life. Not having a will leaves your family in a terrible position, where they will have to endure unnecessary expenses and added stress. Your assets will be distributed according to the laws of your state, and not according to your own wishes.

Directives for Difficult Times Health care directives give your loved ones direction when a terrible situation occurs. If you become incapacitated, through an accident or serious illness, the health care directive tells your family members what kind of care you want—or do not want. You should also have a health care proxy, so that a person can make medical decisions on your behalf. An estate planning attorney who is licensed in your state will know what forms are accepted.

In addition, you’ll need a financial power of attorney. This allows you to designate someone to step in and manage your finances in the case of incapacity. This is especially important if you are single, because otherwise a court may name someone to be your financial guardian.

What About Trusts? If you own a lot of assets or if your estate is complicated, a trust may be helpful. Trusts are legal entities that hold assets on behalf of a beneficiary or beneficiaries. There are many different types of trusts that are used to serve different purposes, from Special Needs Trusts that are designed to help families plan for an individual with special needs, revocable trusts used to avoid probate and testamentary trusts, which are created only when you die. An estate planning attorney will know which trusts are appropriate for your individual situation.

Reference: Brainerd Dispatch (Aug. 11, 2019) “Navigating your estate plan”

Why Do I Need an Attorney to Help Me with Estate Planning?

Your estate plan can be simple or complicated. The New Hampshire Union Leader’s recent article, “Estate planning is important and may require help from a professional,” says that some strategies are definitely easier to implement—like having a will, for example. Others are more complex, like creating a trust. Whatever your needs, most strategies will probably necessitate that you hire a qualified estate planning attorney. Here are some situations that may require special planning attention:

  • Your estate is valued at more than the federal gift and/or estate tax applicable exclusion amount ($11.4 million per person in 2019);
  • You have minor children;
  • You have loved ones with special needs who depend on you;
  • You own a business;
  • You have property in more than one state;
  • You want to donate to charities;
  • You own valuable artwork or collectibles;
  • You have specific thoughts concerning health care; or
  • You desire privacy and want to avoid the probate process.

First, you need to understand your situation, and that includes factors like your age, health and wealth. Your thoughts about benefitting family members and taxes also need to be considered. You’ll want to have plans in place should you become incapacitated.

Next, think about your goals and objectives. Some common goals are:

  • Providing financial security for your family;
  • Preserving property for your heirs;
  • Avoiding disputes among family members or business partners;
  • Giving to a charity;
  • Managing your affairs, if you are disabled;
  • Having sufficient liquidity to pay the expenses of your estate; and
  • Transferring ownership of your property or business interests.

Ask your attorney about a will. If you have minor children, you must have a will to address guardianship, unless your state provides an alternative legal means to do so. Some people many need a trust to properly address their planning concerns. Some of your assets will also have their own beneficiary designations. Once you have you a plan, review it every few years or when there’s a birth, adoption, death, or divorce in the family.

Reference: New Hampshire Union Leader (July 27, 2019) “Estate planning is important and may require help from a professional”

Your Estate Plan Decides or the State Decides

It’s something that everyone needs, but often gets overlooked. Estate planning makes some people downright uncomfortable. There’s no law that says you must have an estate plan—just laws that will impact how your property is distributed and who will raise your children, if you don’t have a will. Planning is important, says WMUR 9 in a recent article “Money Matters: Estate planning,” if you want to be the one making those decisions.

An estate plan can be simple, if you only own a few assets, or complicated if you have significant assets, more than one home and multiple investments. Some strategies are easier to implement, like a last will and testament. Others can be simple or complex, like trusts. Whatever your needs, an estate planning attorney will be able to give you the guidance that your unique situation requires. Your estate planning attorney may work with your financial advisor and accountant to be sure that your financial and legal plans work together to benefit you and your family.

There are circumstances that require special estate planning:

  • If your estate is valued at more than the federal gift and/or estate tax exclusion, which is $11.4 million per person in 2019
  • You have minor children
  • There are family members with special needs who rely on your support
  • You own a business
  • You own property in more than one state
  • You want to leave a charitable legacy
  • Your property includes artwork or other valuable collectables
  • You have opinions about end-of-life healthcare
  • You want privacy for your family

The first step for any estate plan is a thorough review of the family finances, dynamics and assets. Who are your family members? How do you want to help them? What do they need? What is your tax picture like? How old are you, and how good is your health? These are just a few of the things an estate planning attorney will discuss with you. Once you are clear on your situation, you’ll discuss overall goals and objectives. The attorney will be able to outline your options, whether you are concerned with passing wealth to the next generation, avoiding family disputes, preparing for a disability or transferring ownership of a business.

A last will and testament will provide clear, legal direction as to how your assets should be distributed and who will care for any minor children.

A trust is used to address more complex planning concerns. A trust is a legal entity that holds assets to be used for the benefit of one or more individuals. It is overseen by a trustee or trustees, who can be individuals you name or professionals.

If you create trusts, it is important that assets be retitled so the trust owns the assets and not you personally. If the assets are not retitled, the trust will not achieve your goals.

Some property typically has its own beneficiary designations, like IRAs, retirement accounts and life insurance. These assets pass directly to heirs according to the designation, but only if you make the designations on the appropriate forms.

Once you’re done with your estate plan, make a note on your calendar. Estate plans and beneficiary designations need to be reviewed every three or four years. Lives change, laws change and your estate plan needs to keep pace.

Reference: WMUR 9 (Aug. 1, 2019) “Money Matters: Estate planning”

How Do Trusts Work in Your Estate Plan?

A trust can be a useful tool for passing on assets, allowing them to be held by a responsible trustee for beneficiaries. However, determining which type of trust is best for each family’s situation and setting them up so they work with an estate plan, can be complex. You’ll do better with the help of an estate planning attorney, says The Street in the article “How to Set Up a Trust Fund: What You Need to Know.”

Depending upon the assets, a trust can help avoid estate taxes that might make the transfer financially difficult for those receiving the assets. The amount of control that is available with a trust, is another reason why they are a popular estate planning tool.

First, make sure that you have enough assets to make using a trust productive. There are some tax complexities that arise with the use of trusts. Unless there is a fair amount of money involved, it may not be worth the expense. Once you’ve made that decision, it’s time to consider what type of trust is needed.

Revocable Trusts are trusts that can be changed. If you believe that you will live for a long time, you may want to use a revocable trust, so you can make changes to it, if necessary. Because of its flexibility, you can change beneficiaries, terminate the trust, or leave it as is. You have options. Once you die, the revocable trust becomes irrevocable and distributions and assets shift to the beneficiaries.

A revocable trust avoids probate for the trust, but will be counted as part of your “estate” for estate tax purposes. They are includable in your estate, because you maintain control over them during your lifetime.

They are used to help manage assets as you age, or help you maintain control of assets, if you don’t believe the trustees are not ready to manage the funds.

Irrevocable Trusts cannot be changed once they have been implemented. If estate taxes are a concern, it’s likely you’ll consider this type of trust. The assets are given to the trust, thus removing them from your taxable estate.

Deciding whether to use an irrevocable trust is not always easy. You’ll need to be comfortable with giving up complete control of assets.

These are just two of many different types of trusts. There are trusts set up for distributions to pay college expenses, Special Needs Trusts for disabled individuals, charitable trusts for philanthropic purposes and more. Your estate planning attorney will be able to identify what trusts are most appropriate for your situation.

Here’s how to prepare for your meeting with an estate planning attorney:

List all of your assets. List everything you might want to place in a trust: including accounts, investments and real estate.

List beneficiaries. Include primary and secondary beneficiaries.

Map out the specifics. Who do you want to receive the assets? How much do you want to leave them? You should be as detailed as possible.

Choose a trustee. You’ll need to name someone you trust implicitly, who understands your financial situation and who will be able to stand up to any beneficiaries who might not like how you’ve structured your trust. It can be a professional, if there are no family members or friends who can handle this task.

Don’t forget to fund the trust. This last step is very important. The trust document does no good, if the trusts are not funded. You may do better letting your estate planning attorney handle this task, so that accounts are properly titled with assets and the trusts are properly registered with the IRS.

Creating a trust fund can be a complex task. However, with the help of an experienced estate planning attorney, this strategy can yield a lifetime of benefits for you and your loved ones.

Reference: The Street (July 22, 2019) “How to Set Up a Trust Fund: What You Need to Know”

Advance Planning Key for Alzheimer’s Patients

A retired physician and his wife have allowed a local television station to report their family’s journey with Alzheimer’s over the course of the last four years. The series continues with WCCO CBS Minnesota’s article “’All Lined Up Before You Need It’: Alzheimer’s Association Shares Steps for Estate Planning,” with four steps to take, if you notice that a family member is having memory lapses or trouble with simple tasks.

The Quinn family—Dr. Paul Quinn and his wife Peg—had some tough conversations years ago, when Paul’s memory was better, and when he was able to be completely honest with his wife about his wishes and what the couple would need to do moving forward.

Peg Quinn said that getting everything lined up long before it’s needed, is very important.

If there’s any sign of cognitive decline, there are legal and financial steps that must be pursued. Start with addressing the family budget and projected medical costs for long term care. If possible, gather all family members together for a planning session.

If they live in different parts of the state, or of the country, ask the family members to travel for a weekend family meeting. This is the kind of planning that is better when everyone is physically present.

Start by naming a power of attorney. It needs to be someone who is aware of the situation and will be able to make decisions on your behalf. An estate planning attorney can assist with making this decision.

Next, establish an advance directive with a focus on medical decisions. This may be the toughest part, since it is impossible to know how long someone will live with Alzheimer’s. The average patient lives four to eight years, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. The cost of care can add up fast—as much as $5,000 to $7,000 a month in some cases.

That’s why the next step—selecting an elder law estate planning attorney is so important. Planning for long-term care, qualifying for Medicaid and other benefits, is a complex challenge.

Dr. Quinn expressed his wishes to stay in his home as long as possible. However, his wife admits that he can’t stay focused on any projects for very long. The familiarity of their home makes life much easier for both of them, so they agreed early on to have in-home care, if it’s ever needed.

An estate planning attorney will help the family, by drafting estate planning documents and creating a plan as early as possible. A last will and testament must be created and executed before the person is legally incompetent. The same goes for a power of attorney and any health care power of attorney documents. Medicaid planning should be done as soon as possible, since there is a five-year look back period concerning transferring any assets.

Reference: WCCO CBS Minnesota (July 23, 2019) “’All Lined Up Before You Need It’ : Alzheimer’s Association Shares Steps for Estate Planning”

Estate Planning Smooths Life’s Bumpy Road

It’s too bad that this happened to the Franklin family, but it happens often. A family member dies unexpectedly or becomes incapacitated at a young age and they never did the right planning.  Sometimes worse, they did the right estate planning, but the documents are decades old, out of step with current laws and the power of attorney is so old, that no financial institution will recognize it.

The problems that these scenarios create for loved ones are stressful, expensive and take a fair amount of everyone’s time. Solutions are offered in the article “Planning for the unexpected–4 Steps to get your affairs in order” from the Post Independent.

These four steps will help make the unexpected events of life a little less challenging.

Have a will and other estate planning documents prepared.

A will is a list of instructions to the court that details how you want your possessions to be distributed after you die. It should be drafted by an estate planning attorney who is licensed to practice law in your home state. The will goes through the probate process, which takes care of your legal and financial matters. In some states, the probate process is a simple process. In others, it can be problematic. Your estate planning attorney will be able to advise you about the probate process in your area.

A revocable living trust is a useful estate planning document that is used to establish more control over your assets, while you are alive. It should also be created by an experienced estate planning attorney. At your death, assets held in your trust then pass to heirs and avoid the probate process.

Make sure you title your assets properly.

Once you have a will and any trusts in place, any assets you wish to have placed in the trust need to be titled correctly. If you own a property with someone else and want to be sure your share of that property goes to the other owner, you’ll need to title it jointly.

Don’t forget to review the beneficiary designations that are usually a part of your bank and investment accounts, retirement accounts and insurance policies. Any beneficiary designation will override the will. If you haven’t reviewed beneficiary designations in a long time, now is the time to do so. There is no way to undo a beneficiary designation, once you have died.

Have power of attorney agreements created.

These documents give another person, the “agent,” the power to act on your business, financial and legal affairs, if you are incapacitated. The laws vary from state to state, which is another reason to work with an estate planning attorney licensed in your state. You’ll need these documents:

  • A durable power of attorney
  • A medical durable power of attorney
  • A living will

Prepare a letter of instruction.

This is not a legally binding document, but it can provide loved ones with a great deal of clarity when you have passed. Consider including this information:

  • A list of financial accounts and account numbers and any online usernames and passwords.
  • A list of important documents and where they can be found.
  • The names and contact information for the legal and financial professionals with whom you work.
  • Your final burial and/or funeral wishes.

Once you’re done, review the documents every few years and when there are major events in your life, including births, marriages, divorces, deaths and other “trigger” events. Remember that the laws change, so don’t let too much time go by without a thorough review of your estate plan.

Reference: Post Independent (July 22, 2019) “Planning for the unexpected–4 Steps to get your affairs in order”