Steps to Take When a Loved One Dies

This year, more families than usual are finding themselves grappling with the challenge of managing the affairs of a loved one who has died. Handling these tasks while mourning is hard, and often families do not have time to prepare, says the article “How to manage a loved one’s finances after they die” from Business Insider. The following are some tips to help get through this difficult time.

Someone has to be in charge. If there is a will, there should be a person named who is responsible for administering the estate, usually called the executor or personal representative. If there is no will, it will be best if one person has the necessary skills to take the lead.

When one member of a married couple dies, the surviving spouse is the usual choice. Otherwise, a family member who lives closest to the deceased is the next best choice. That person will need to get documents from the local court and take care of the residence until it is sold. Being physically nearby can make many tasks easier.

It is always better if these decisions are made before the person dies. Wills should be kept up to date, as should power of attorney documents, trusts and advance directives. When naming an executor or trustee, let them know what you are asking of them. For instance, don’t name someone who hates pets and children to be your children’s guardian or be responsible for your beloved dogs when you die.

Don’t delay. Grief is a powerful emotion, especially if the death was unexpected. It may be hard to get through the regular tasks of your day, never mind the additional work of managing an estate. However, there are risks to delaying, including becoming a target of scammers.

Get more death certificates than seems necessary. Make your life easier by getting at least a dozen certified copies, so you don’t have to keep going back to the source. Banks, brokerage houses, phone companies, utilities, credit card companies, etc., will all want to see the death certificate. While there are instances where a copy will be accepted, in many cases you will need an original, with a raised seal. In fact, in some states it is a crime to photocopy a death certificate.

Who to notify? The first call needs to be to the Social Security Administration. You may also want to send an email. If Social Security benefits continue to be paid, returning the money can turn into a time-consuming ordeal. If there are any other recurring payments, like VA benefits or a pension, those institutions need to be notified. The same is true when it comes to insurance companies, banks and credit card companies. Fraud on the credit cards of the deceased is quite common. When a notice of death is published, criminals look for the person’s credit card and Social Security numbers on the dark web. Act fast to prevent fraud.

Protect the physical property. Secure the home right away. Are there plants to be watered or pets that need care? Take pictures, create an inventory and consider changing locks. Take any valuables out of the house and place in a secure location. If the house is going to be empty, make sure to take care of the property to avoid any deterioration.

Paying the bills. Depending on the person’s level of organization, you’ll have to identify where the money is and if anything is being paid automatically. Old tax returns can be helpful to identify income sources. Figure out what accounts need payment, like utilities.

Some accounts are distributed directly to beneficiaries, like transfer-on-death accounts like 401(k)s, IRAs and life insurance policies. Joint bank accounts and real property held in joint tenancy will pass directly to the joint owner. The executor’s role is to inform the institutions of the death, but not to distribute funds.

File tax returns. You’ll have to do the final taxes, due on April 15 of the year after death. If taxes weren’t filed for any prior years, the executor has to do those as well.

Consider getting help. An estate planning lawyer can help with the administration of an estate, if it becomes overwhelming. Regardless of who handles this process, expect the tasks to take anywhere from six months to two years, depending on the complexity of the estate.

Reference: Business Insider (May 2, 2020) “How to manage a loved one’s finances after they die”

When Does the Fiduciary Duty Granted by a Power of Attorney Begin?

A recent case examined the issue of when the fiduciary duty begins for an agent who has been given Power of Attorney, as reported by the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin in the article “Presumed power of attorney fraud is main factor in joint-account fight.”

Soon after moving to Illinois from Florida to live with his eldest son, a man and that son opened multiple bank accounts, purchased certificates of deposit (CDs) from a bank where the son’s wife worked and transferred more than $60,000 from two of the man’s Florida bank accounts to Illinois banks. Soon after the man moved, his eldest son deposited more than $300,000 from the sale of his father’s Florida condominium into one of the father’s Illinois bank accounts.

The eldest son then withdrew money from the father’s accounts to pay for home improvement costs and other personal expenses. After the father died, the eldest son’s two brothers sued their older brother, accusing him of initiating numerous transfers of money that were not in their father’s or their best interests, and of exerting undue influence on their father, by convincing him to change his will after he moved in with the oldest brother.

The trial court ordered the older brother to repay more than $900,000 back to the estate, including almost $300,000 in prejudgment interest, and voided the revised estate planning documents that the older brother had his father sign. That included a revised will, trust and power of attorney that favored the older brother.

Once you are appointed as a power of attorney, you become a fiduciary—that’s how most state laws work. That means you must act first in the interest of the person who has appointed you. The law states that an agent owes a fiduciary duty to the principal. Period. Any transactions that favor the agent over the principal (or their estate) are deemed fraudulent, unless the agent is able to disprove the fraud with clear and convincing evidence that his or her actions were undertaken in good faith and did not betray the confidence and trust placed in the agent. If the agent can meet this burden, the challenged transaction may be upheld. But if it doesn’t, then the transaction is not valid.

Some of the facts the court look at when making this determination are: did the fiduciary make a full disclosure to the principal of key information, did the fiduciary pay the fair market value for the transfer and did the principal have competent and independent advice.

In this case, the trial judge found that the multiple transfers into the Illinois banks and the gift of $130,000 from the principal to the oldest brother occurred during the existence of the POA relationship. The oldest brother clearly benefitted from these transfers, which activated the presumption of fraud.

The trial court’s decision was appealed by the older brother, who along with his two younger brothers brought motions for summary judgment, that is, for the appeals court to disregard the decision of the trial court. However, the appeals court agreed with the trial judge that the older brother failed to prove that the transfers were in good faith.

The appeals court makes it clear: the power of attorney fiduciary relationship begins when the power of attorney agent signs the document and the agent has a legal responsibility to put the interests of the principal first.

Reference: Chicago Daily Law Bulletin (April 23, 2020) “Presumed power of attorney fraud is main factor in joint-account fight”

 

What is the Difference between Guardianship and Power of Attorney?

Protecting yourself or a loved one can take many different forms, since aging takes a toll on the ability to handle financial and medical decisions. In most situations, guardianship or a power of attorney does the trick, says the article “Guardianships vs. Powers of Attorney” from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  How to know which is the best one to use?

A guardianship is a court-authorized assignment of surrogate decision-making power for the benefit of a person who has lost the ability to make informed decisions on their own, often described as a person who has become incapacitated. The decisions that another person can make on their behalf can be very broad, or they can be very specific.

If a person becomes incapacitated, either through a slowly progressing illness like dementia or quickly, as the result of an accident, a judge will appoint a person or sometimes an organization to handle health care and financial decisions. The court-appointed guardian or organization could be a person or agency you have never heard of and would not know your family or anything about you.

Yes, that is scary. However, guardianship takes place when families do not plan in advance to appoint a surrogate decision maker, also known as an “agent.”

Here’s even more scary news: once the court has appointed a guardian, that relationship may continue for the rest of the incapacitated person’s life. That means annual accountings and involvement with the court, legal fees and other professional fees the guardian or court deems necessary.

There are some guardians who have made headlines for stealing money and making care decisions that the individual and their families did not want.

Meeting with an estate planning attorney to prepare for incapacity as part of an overall estate plan is a far better way. Why don’t more people do it?

  • They aren’t aware of the importance of power of attorney.
  • They don’t want to spend the money.
  • They don’t know who to choose as their power of attorney
  • They don’t want to think about incapacity or death.

In contrast to a court-supervised lifetime guardianship, a properly drafted power of attorney can provide for an agent to make a variety of financial and medical decisions. The person named as a power of attorney (the agent) can serve for the person’s lifetime, just like a guardian.

This is the most fundamental estate planning document, after the last will and testament. Once it’s prepared, you can always change your mind and you or your agent never need to go to court.

Reference: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Feb. 24, 2020) “Guardianships vs. Powers of Attorney”

Key Health Document Most Americans Don’t Have but Should

You may not like the idea of contemplating your own mortality, or that of a loved one. You may procrastinate all year long about putting your final wishes in place. However, this one document is important for yourself, your loved ones and your life. You shouldn’t put it off any longer. Forbes’ recent article titled “Two-Thirds of All Americans Are Missing This Estate Planning Document” explains why.

A health care directive is a legal document that an individual will use to give specific directions for caregivers, in case of dementia or illness. It directs end of life decisions. It also gives directions for how the person wishes their body to be cared for after their death.

This document is known by several different names: living wills, durable health care powers of attorney or medical directives. However, the purpose is the same: to give guidance and direction on making medical and end-of-life decisions.

This document itself is a relatively new one. The first was created in California in 1976, and by 1992, all fifty states had similar laws. The fact that the law was accepted so fast across the country, indicates how important it is. The document provides control when a person is impaired and after their death. That is at the heart of all estate planning.

Yet just as so many Americans don’t have wills, only a third have a health care directive. That’s a surprise, since both estate planning attorneys and health care professionals regularly encourage people to have these documents in place.

A key part of a health care directive is selecting an agent. This is a person who will act as the proxy to make decisions for another person, consistent with their wishes. They will also have to advocate for the person with respect to having treatment continue or shifting to pain management and palliative care. The spouse is often the first choice for this role. An adult child or other close and trusted family or friends can also serve.

The agent’s role does not end at death but continues to ensure that post-mortem wishes are carried out. The agent takes control of the person’s body, making sure that any organ donations are made, if it was the person’s wish.

Once any donation wishes are carried out, the agent also makes sure that funeral wishes are done according to the person’s wishes. Burial is an ancient tradition, but there are many different choices to be made. The health care directive can have as many details as possible, or simply state burial or cremation.

Having a health care directive in place permits an individual to state his or her wishes clearly. Talk with your estate planning attorney about creating a health care directive as part of your comprehensive estate plan.

Reference: Forbes (December 13, 2019) “Two-Thirds of All Americans Are Missing This Estate Planning Document”

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”

Why You Need a Power of Attorney in Your Estate Plan

A power of attorney is an important legal document that allows a person, known as the principal, to designate a person of their choice to become their agent, acting on their behalf. This is usually done when the principal is unable to manage their financial affairs due to disability, illness or incapacity. It must be done while the principal is still competent, notes Delco Times in the article “What’s the difference between guardianship and power of attorney?” There are also instances when power of attorney is used when the principal is unable to conduct their own affairs, because they are traveling or are deployed overseas.

Related documents are the health care power of attorney and the durable power of attorney. A durable financial power of attorney is a document where the principal designates the powers that the agent may exercise over their finances. The powers granted by this document can be used by the agent, regardless of the principal’s capacity or disability.

The principal has the option to grant very broad authority to their agent. For instance, the principal could give their agent the authority to gift all their assets, while they are still living. That’s why it is very important for the specific provisions in the power of attorney to be carefully reviewed and tailored to the principal’s wishes. There are risks in naming an agent, since they are able to exercise complete control over the principal’s assets. The agent must be 100% trustworthy.

A health care power of attorney allows an agent to make decisions about the principal’s health. Note that this document is operative only when a copy is provided to the attending physician, and the physician determines that the principal is incompetent.

Both health care power of attorney and financial power of attorney may be revoked by the principal at any time and for any reason.

If the principal has not had these documents prepared in advance and then becomes incompetent by reason of injury, illness, or mental health issues, they may not have the legal right to sign the power of attorney. When this happens, it is necessary for a guardianship proceeding to occur, so that other people may be named to take charge of the person’s financial and health affairs. Advance planning is always preferred.

If an individual is born with a disability that impacts their capacity and upon attaining legal age, does not have the capacity to sign a power of attorney, then a guardianship proceeding will be necessary. The court must determine if the person is truly incapacitated and if there might be an alternative to appointing a guardian. Once the guardian is appointed, the principal no longer has the legal right to make decisions on their own behalf.

A guardianship is a much more restrictive tool than a power of attorney. For one thing, the power of attorney generally does not need the involvement of the court. There is always the possibility that a guardian is appointed who does not know the family or the individual. A durable power of attorney allows a person to appoint someone they know and trust to help them and their family, if and when they become incapacitated.

Speak with your estate planning attorney about how power of attorney works, and when guardianship issues might arise. Being prepared in advance by having the right documents in place, is always better than having the family going to court and hoping that the right decisions are made.

Reference: Delco Times (May 8, 2019) “What’s the difference between guardianship and power of attorney?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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