How Important Is a Power of Attorney?

People are often surprised to learn a power of attorney is one of the most urgently needed estate planning documents to have, with a last will and health care proxy close behind in order of importance. Everyone over age 18 should have these documents, explains a recent article titled “The dangers of not having a power of attorney” from the Rome Sentinel. The reason is simple: if you have a short- or long-term health problem and can’t manage your own assets or even medical decisions and haven’t given anyone the ability to do so, you may spend your rehabilitation period dealing with an easily avoidable nightmare.

Here are other problems that may result from not having your incapacity legal planning in place:

A guardianship proceeding might be needed. If you are incapacitated without this planning, loved ones may have to petition the court to apply for guardianship so they can make fundamental decisions for you. Even if you are married, your spouse is not automatically empowered to manage your financial affairs, except perhaps for assets that are jointly owned. It can take months to obtain guardianship and costs far more than the legal documents in the first place. If there are family issues, guardianship might lead to litigation and family fights.

The cost of not being able to pay bills in a timely manner adds up quickly. The world keeps moving while you are incapacitated. Mortgage payments and car loans need to be paid, as do utilities and healthcare bills. Lapses of insurance for your home, auto or life, could turn a health crisis into a financial crisis, if no one can act on your behalf.

Nursing home bills and Medicaid eligibility denials. Even one month of paying for a nursing home out of pocket, when you would otherwise qualify for Medicaid, could take a large bite out of savings. The Medicaid application process requires a responsible person to gather a lot of medical records, sign numerous documents and follow through with the appropriate government authorities.

Getting medical records in a HIPAA world. Your power of attorney should include an authorization for your representative to take care of all health care billing and payments and to access your medical records. If a spouse or family member is denied access to review records, your treatment and care may suffer. If your health crisis is the result of an accident or medical malpractice, this could jeopardize your defense.

Transferring assets. It may be necessary to transfer assets, like a home, or other assets, out of your immediate control. You may be in a final stage of life. As a result, transferring assets while you are still living will avoid costly and time-consuming probate proceedings. If a power of attorney is up to date and includes a fully executed “Statutory Gift” authorization, your loved ones will be able to manage your assets for the best possible outcome.

The power of attorney is a uniquely flexible estate planning document. It can be broad and permit someone you trust to manage all of your financial and legal matters, or it can be narrow in scope. Your estate planning attorney will be able to craft an appropriate power of attorney that is best suited for your needs and family. The most important thing: don’t delay having a new or updated power of attorney created. If you have a power of attorney, but it was created more than four or five years ago, it may not be recognized by financial institutions.

Reference: Rome Sentinel (July 25, 2021) “The dangers of not having a power of attorney”

 

Why Is It Important to have a Will?

A Gallup poll released in June showed that slightly less than half of all Americans have a will to tell loved ones what they want to happen with their estate after they die. What’s surprising is that the results of this survey have been almost the same since 1990, explains the article “6 Reasons You Need to Make a Will Now” from Real Simple. The survey also showed that upper-income Americans are more likely than lower-income Americans to have a will, and the younger people are, the less likely they are to have a will.

One of the lessons from the pandemic, is how fragile our lives are. It’s never too early to start planning and properly document your wishes. If you need more reasons to begin estate planning, here are six:

No will often leads to unwanted consequences. A major misconception is the idea that you don’t need a will because everything you own will go to your family. Not necessarily. Each state has its own laws about what happens if you have no will, and those laws are usually based on bloodlines or kinship. Most states leave two-thirds of your assets to your children and one-third to your spouse. Will your spouse be able to maintain the same standard of living, or even remain in the family home if this is how assets are distributed? A no-will situation is a no-win situation and can fracture even the best families.

Wills are used to name guardians for minor children. No parent, especially young parents, thinks that anything will happen to them, or even more unlikely, to both parents. However, it does. Creating a will offers the opportunity to name guardians to care for your children after death. If you don’t designate a guardian, a judge will. The judge will have never met your children, nor understand your family’s dynamics, and might even determine that the children should be raised by strangers.

Wills and pet trusts can protect pets after your demise. If you have beloved animal companions, it’s important to understand what can happen to them after you die. The law considers pets to be property, so you can’t leave money to your pet. However, you can create a pet trust and name a person to be the caregiver for your pet, if it survives you. The trust is enforceable, and the pet’s care can be detailed. Otherwise, there is no guarantee your pet will avoid being euthanized.

Taxes are part of death. Creating an estate plan with an experienced estate planning attorney who is knowledgeable about estate taxes, could save your heirs from losing a significant part of their inheritance. There are many tools and strategies to minimize taxes, including making charitable gifts. Plans for large estates can be structured in a way to avoid as much as 40% of tax exposure. It’s even more important to protect a smaller estate from being lost to taxes.

Peace of mind. Remember, wills and estate plans are not just for the benefit of the person who creates them. They are for the family, the surviving spouse, children, and grandchildren. If you did not take the time and make the effort to create an estate plan, they are the ones who will live with the consequences. In many cases, it could change their lives—and not for the better.

Putting it off never ends well. When you’re young and healthy, it seems like nothing can ever go wrong. However, live long enough, and you learn life has ups and downs and unexpected events—like death and serious illness—happen to everyone. Creating an estate plan won’t make you die sooner but having one can provide you and your loved ones with security, so you can focus on living.

Reference: Real Simple (June 25, 2021) “6 Reasons You Need to Make a Will Now”

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Short-Cuts to Estate Planning can Lead to Costly Consequences

It seems like a simple way for the children to manage mom’s finances: add the grown children as owners to a bank account, brokerage account or make them joint owners of the home. However, these short-cut methods create all kinds of problems for the parent’s estate and the children themselves, says the article entitled “Estate planning: When you take the lazy way out, someone will pay the price” from Florida Today.

By adding an adult child as owner to the account, the child is being given 50% ownership. The same is true if the child is added to the title for the home as joint owner. If there is more than $30,000 in the account or if the asset is valued at more than $30,000, then the mother needs to file a gift tax return—even if no gift tax is due. If the gift tax return is not filed in a timely manner, there might be a gift tax due in the future.

There is also a carryover basis in the account or property when the adult child is added as an owner. If it’s a bank account, the primary issue is the gift tax return. However, if the asset is a brokerage account or the parent’s primary residence, then the child steps into the parent’s shoes for 50% of the amount they bought the property for originally.

Here is an example: let’s say a parent is in her 80s and you are seeing that she is starting to slow down. You decide to take an easy route and have her add you to her bank account, brokerage account and the deed (or title) to the family home. If she becomes incapacitated or dies, you’ll own everything and you can make all the necessary decisions, including selling the house and using the funds for funeral expenses. It sounds easy and inexpensive, doesn’t it? It may be easy, but it’s not inexpensive.

Sadly, your mom dies. You need some cash to pay her final medical bills, cover the house expenses and maybe a few of your own bills. You sell some stock. After all, you own the account. It’s then time to file a tax return for the year when you sold the stock. When reporting the stock sale, your basis in the stock is 50% step-up in value based on the value of the stock the day that your mom died, plus 50% of what she originally paid for the stock.

If your mom bought the stock for $100 twenty years ago, and the stock is now worth $10,500, when you were added to the account, you now step into her shoes for 50% of the stock—$50. You sold the stock after she died, so your basis in that stock is now $5,050—that’s $5,000 value of stock when she died plus $50: 50% of the original purchase. Your taxable gain is $5,450.

How do you avoid this? If the ownership of the brokerage account remained solely with your mother, but you were a Payable on Death (POD) or Transfer on Death (TOD) beneficiary, you would not have access to the account if your mom became incapacitated and had appointed you as her “attorney in fact” on her general durable power of attorney. What would be the result? You would get a step-up in basis on the asset after she died. The inherited stock would have a basis of $10,000 and the taxable gain would be $500, not $5,450.

A better alternative—talk with an estate planning attorney to create a will, a revocable trust, a general durable power of attorney and the other legal documents used to transfer assets and minimize taxes. The estate planning attorney will be able to create a way for you to get access or transfer the property without negative tax consequences.

Reference: Florida Today (May 20, 2021) , “Estate planning: When you take the lazy way out, someone will pay the price”

How Do Special Needs Trusts Work?

A trust of any kind is a document that expresses your wishes while you are alive and after you have passed. The need for a dedicated trust for loved ones differs with the situations or issues of the family. Getting this wrong can lead to financial devastation, explains the article “Take special care with Special Needs trusts” from the Herald Bulletin.

A Special Needs Trust or supplemental trust provides protection and management for assets for specific beneficiaries. The trustee is in charge of the assets in the trust during the grantor’s life or at his death and distributes to the beneficiary as directed by the trust.

The purpose of a Special Needs or supplemental trust is to help people who receive government benefits because they are physically or mentally challenged or are chronically ill. Most of these benefits are means-tested. The rules about outside income are very strict. An inheritance would disqualify a Special Needs person from receiving these benefits, possibly putting them in dire circumstances.

The value of assets placed in a Special Needs trust does not count against the benefits. However, this area of the law is complex, and requires the help of an experienced elder law estate planning attorney. Mistakes could have lifelong consequences.

The trustee manages assets and disperses funds when needed, or at the direction of the trust. Selecting a trustee is extremely important, since the duties of a Special Needs trust could span decades. The person in charge must be familiar with the government programs and benefits and stay up to date with any changes that might impact the decisions of when to release funds.

These are just a few of the considerations for a trustee:

  • How should disbursements be made, balancing current needs and future longevity?
  • Does the request align with the rules of the trust and the assistance program requirements?
  • Will anyone else benefit from the expenditure, family members or the trustee? The trustee has a fiduciary responsibility to protect the beneficiary, first and foremost.

Parents who leave life insurance, stocks, bonds, or cash to all children equally may be putting their Special Needs child in jeopardy. Well-meaning family members who wish to take care of their relative must be made aware of the risk of leaving assets to a Special Needs individual. These conversations should take place, no matter how awkward.

An experienced elder law estate planning attorney will be able to create a Special Needs trust that will work for the individual and for the family.

Reference: Herald Bulletin (March 13, 2021) “Take special care with Special Needs trusts”

Read more about the article How to Manage a Will and Trust
Estate Plan, Living Will, and Healthcare Power of Attorney documents

How to Manage a Will and Trust

A last will and testament is used to point out the beneficiaries and trustees and the legal professionals you want to be involved with your estate when you have passed, explains this recent article What You Need To Know About Handling a Will and Trust from Your Dearly Departed Loved One” from North Forty News. If there are minor children in the picture, the last will is used to direct who will be their guardians.

A trust is different than the last will. A trust is a legal entity where one person places assets in the trust and names a trustee to be in charge of the assets in the trust on behalf of the beneficiaries. The assets are legally protected and must be distributed as per the instructions in the trust document. Trusts are a good way to reduce paperwork, save time and reduce estate taxes.

Don’t go it alone. If your loved one had a last will and trust, chances are they were prepared by an estate planning lawyer. The estate planning attorney can help you go through the legal process. The attorney also knows how to prepare for any possible disputes from relatives.

It may be more complicated than you expect. There are times when honoring the wishes of the deceased about how their property is distributed becomes difficult. Sometimes, there are issues between the beneficiaries and the last will and trust custodians. If you locate the attorney who was present at the time the last will was signed and the trusts created, she may be able to make the process easier.

Be prepared to get organized. There’s usually a lot of paperwork. First, gather all of the documents—an original last will, the death certificate, life insurance policies, marriage certificates, real estate titles, military discharge papers, divorce papers (if any) and any trust documents. Review the last will and trust with an estate planning attorney to understand what you will need to do.

Protect personal property and assets. Homes, boats, vehicles and other large assets will need to be secured to protect them from theft. Once the funeral has taken place, you’ll need to identify all of the property owned by the deceased and make sure they are property insured and valued. If a home is going to be empty, changing the locks is a reasonable precaution. You don’t know who has keys or feels entitled to its contents.

Distribution of assets. If there is a last will, it must be filed with the probate court and all beneficiaries—everyone mentioned in the last will has to be notified of the decedent’s passing. As the executor, you are responsible for ensuring that every person gets what they have been assigned. You will need to prepare a document that accounts for the distribution of all properties, which the court has to certify before the estate can be closed.

Taking on the responsibility of finalizing a person’s estate is not without challenges. An estate planning attorney can help you through the process, making sure you are managing all the details according to the last will and the state’s laws. There may be personal liability attached to serving as the executor, so you’ll want to make sure to have good guidance on your side.

Reference: North Forty News (Feb. 3, 2021) What You Need To Know About Handling a Will and Trust from Your Dearly Departed Loved One”

How Does a Trust Work for a Farm Family?

There are four elements to a trust, as described in this recent article “Trust as an Estate Planning Tool,” from Ag Decision Maker: trustee, trust property, trust document and beneficiaries. The trust is created by the trust document, also known as a trust agreement. The person who creates the trust is called the trustmaker, grantor, settlor, or trustor. The document contains instructions for management of the trust assets, including distribution of assets and what should happen to the trust, if the trustmaker dies or becomes incapacitated.

Beneficiaries of the trust are also named in the trust document, and may include the trustmaker, spouse, relatives, friends and charitable organizations.

The individual who creates the trust is responsible for funding the trust. This is done by changing the title of ownership for each asset that is placed in the trust from an individual’s name to that of the trust. Failing to fund the trust is an all too frequent mistake made by trustmakers.

The assets of the trust are managed by the trustee, named in the trust document. The trustee is a fiduciary, meaning they must place the interest of the trust above their own personal interest. Any management of trust assets, including collecting income, conducting accounting or tax reporting, investments, etc., must be done in accordance with the instructions in the trust.

The process of estate planning includes an evaluation of whether a trust is useful, given each family’s unique circumstances. For farm families, gifting an asset like farmland while retaining lifetime use can be done through a retained life estate, but a trust can be used as well. If the family is planning for future generations, wishing to transfer farm income to children and the farmland to grandchildren, for example, a granted life estate or a trust document will work.

Other situations where a trust is needed include families where there is a spendthrift heir, concerns about litigious in-laws or a second marriage with children from prior marriages.

Two main types of trust are living or inter-vivos trusts and testamentary trusts. The living trust is established and funded by a living person, while the testamentary trust is created in a will and is funded upon the death of the willmaker.

There are two main types of living trusts: revocable and irrevocable. The revocable trust transfers assets into a trust, but the grantor maintains control over the assets. Keeping control means giving up any tax benefits, as the assets are included as part of the estate at the time of death. When the trust is irrevocable, it cannot be altered, amended, or terminated by the trustmaker. The assets are not counted for estate tax purposes in most cases.

When farm families include multiple generations and significant assets, it’s important to work with an experienced estate planning attorney to ensure that the farm’s property and assets are protected and successfully passed from generation to generation.

Reference: Ag Decision Maker (Dec. 2020) “Trust as an Estate Planning Tool”

 

What You Should Never, Ever, Include in Your Will

A last will and testament is a straightforward estate planning tool, used to determine the beneficiaries of your assets when you die, and, if you have minor children, nominating a guardian who will raise your children. Wills can be very specific but can’t enforce all of your wishes. For example, if you want to leave your niece your car, but only if she uses it to attend college classes, there won’t be a way to enforce those terms in a will, says the article “Things you should never put in your will” from MSN Money.

If you have certain terms you want met by beneficiaries, your best bet is to use a trust, where you can state the terms under which your beneficiaries will receive distributions or assets.

Leaving things out of your will can actually benefit your heirs, because in most cases, they will get their inheritance faster. Here’s why: when you die, your will must be validated in a court of law before any property is distributed. The process, called probate, takes a certain amount of time, and if there are issues, it might be delayed. If someone challenges the will, it can take even longer.

However, property that is in a trust or in payable-on-death (POD) titled accounts pass directly to your beneficiaries outside of a will.

Don’t put any property or assets in a will that you don’t own outright. If you own any property jointly, upon your death the other owner will become the sole owner. This is usually done by married couples in community property states.

A trust may be the solution for more control. When you put assets in a trust, title is held by the trust. Property that is titled as owned by the trust becomes subject to the rules of the trust and is completely separate from the will. Since the trust operates independently, it is very important to make sure the property you want to be held by the trust is titled properly and to not include anything in your will that is owned by the trust.

Certain assets are paid out to beneficiaries because they feature a beneficiary designation. They also should not be mentioned in the will. You should check to ensure that your beneficiary designations are up to date every few years, so the right people will own these assets upon your death.

Here are a few accounts that are typically passed through beneficiary designations:

  • Bank accounts
  • Investments and brokerage accounts
  • Life insurance polices
  • Retirement accounts and pension plans.

Another way to pass property outside of the will, is to own it jointly. If you and a sibling co-own stocks in a jointly owned brokerage account and you die, your sibling will continue to own the account and its investments. This is known as joint tenancy with rights of survivorship.

Business interests can pass through a will, but that is not your best option. An estate planning attorney can help you create a succession plan that will take the business out of your personal estate and create a far more efficient way to pass the business along to family members, if that is your intent. If a partner or other owners will be taking on your share of the business after death, an estate planning attorney can be instrumental in creating that plan.

Funeral instructions don’t belong in a will. Family members may not get to see that information until long after the funeral. You may want to create a letter of instruction, a less formal document that can be used to relay these details.

Your account numbers, including passwords and usernames for online accounts, do not belong in a will. Remember a will becomes a public document, so anything you don’t want the general public to know after you have passed should not be in your will.

Reference: MSN Money (Dec. 8, 2020) “Things you should never put in your will”

How Important Is Avoiding Probate?

Estate planning attorneys are often asked if one of the goals of an estate plan is to avoid probate, regardless of the cost. The answer to that question is no, but a better question is the more even-tempered “Should I try to avoid probate?” In that case, the answer is “It depends.” A closer look at this question is provided in the recent article from The Daily Sentinel, “Estate Planning: Is Probate Something to Avoid at All Costs?”

Probate is not always a nightmare, depending upon where a decedent lived. Probate is a court process conducted by judges, who usually understand the difficulty executors and families are facing, and their support staff who genuinely care about the families involved. This is not everywhere, but your estate planning attorney will know what your local probate court is like. With that in mind, there are certain pitfalls to probate and there are situations where avoiding probate does make sense for your family.

In the case where it makes sense to avoid probate, whatever planning strategy is being used to avoid probate must be carefully evaluated. Does it make sense, or does it create further issues? Here’s an example of how this can backfire. A person provided their estate planning attorney with a copy of a beneficiary deed, which is a deed that transfers property to a designated person (called a “grantee”) immediately upon the death of the person who signed the deed (called a “grantor”).

The deed had been signed and recorded properly with the recorder’s office, just as a typical deed would be during the sale of a home. Note that a beneficiary deed does not transfer the title of ownership, until the grantor dies.

Here’s where things went bad. No one knew about the beneficiary deed, except for the grantor and the grantee. The remainder of the estate plan did not mention anything about the beneficiary deed. When the grantor died, ownership of the property was transferred to the grantee. However, the will contained conflicting instructions about the property and who was to inherit it.

Instead of avoiding probate, the grantor’s estate was tied up in court for more than a year. The family was torn apart, and the costs to resolve the matter were substantial.

Had the deceased simply relied upon the probate process or coordinated the transfer of ownership with his estate planning attorney, the intended person would have received the property and the family would have been spared the cost and stress. Sticking with the use of a last will and testament and the probate process would have protected everyone involved.

An experienced estate planning attorney can help determine the best approach for the family, with or without probate.

Reference: The Daily Sentinel (Oct. 3, 2020) “Estate Planning: Is Probate Something to Avoid at All Costs?”

Do You Need a Revocable Trust?

A will lets you determine how your property will be distributed when you die, and a revocable living trust also accomplishes that task. However, the owner of the trust can make strict stipulations about how specific assets should be distributed, says Barron’s in the article “Revocable Living Trusts Can Help Your Heirs Avoid Probate. Here’s How They Work.” Another advantage of a revocable trust—avoiding probate, which gives the trust owner far more control over asset distribution.

Remember, probate is a process that takes place under the supervision of a judge in a court. Things don’t always happen the way the decedent may have wanted.

It’s best for individuals or couples with complex estate planning needs to meet with an estate planning lawyer, who will discuss whether a living trust is the right option. One question couples should ask: does it make sense for them to have a living will, and should it be a joint trust, or should it be two separate ones?

When a trust is created, it needs to be funded. Assets such as real estate, bank accounts, taxable non-retirement investment accounts all need to be retitled so they are owned by the trust. The person who creates the trust has no restrictions as to how the assets within the trust are used while they are alive. The trust can also be revoked during the owner’s lifetime, but it’s more common for owners to make tweaks to the trust.

Trusts are very popular in states like California and Massachusetts, which have more restrictive probate laws than other states. Trusts are very good for people who own property in multiple states and would otherwise have to deal with probate in multiple states. Trusts are also excellent for people who wish to maintain privacy about their assets, since the trust’s contents remain private. A will, once it enters the probate process, becomes a public document.

Someone who does not own his or her own home and has limited assets may prefer to use a will, which is less expensive and simpler than a trust. Once they do own a home and have more extensive assets, they can always have a trust created.

A living trust is part of a larger estate plan. Other estate planning documents are still needed, including a durable power of attorney for finances, an advance health care directive, a nomination of guardianship for families with minor children and a living will.

People who have revocable trusts should ask their estate planning attorney about something called a “pour-over” will. This is a will that ensures that any assets accidentally left out of the trust are added to the trust after the death of the owner. If the majority of assets are in the trust, the probate of the pour-over will should be much simpler and there may even be a “fast-track” option for assets under a certain dollar level.

Reference: Barron’s (February 22, 2020) “Revocable Living Trusts Can Help Your Heirs Avoid Probate. Here’s How They Work”

Common Myths about Your Estate When You Die

There are many misconceptions about the law in general and about estate planning in particular. There are also many opportunities to use the law to protect those we love, when it comes to helping families navigate life and the legal processes that happen after the death or disability of a loved one. The best option is to plan ahead, reports the article “I’m dead, now what? Myths about deaths in Georgia” from the Cherokee Tribune & Ledger-News. Here are the top four myths about what happens when someone dies.

A Will. If there’s no will, my spouse gets everything. Well, no. While you are a team, and you may want your spouse to get everything, if there’s no will, the laws of your state will determine who gets what. Your spouse in some states will split your possessions with your children. Your spouse in some states will get no less than a third of your assets. If you want your spouse to inherit everything, you need a will.

You also need a will if you want your spouse to receive everything so they can take care of your children, if something unexpected happens to you. Without it, your spouse will have to create a budget for your children’s needs and present that to the court before they can spend any of the children’s money. That’s how it works in Georgia. Check with a local estate planning attorney to make sure that’s what you’re prepared to leave for your spouse to do, or what your state’s laws say.

Having a will allows you to determine who you want to inherit what.

A will means there’s no need for probate court. Wrong again! Having a will does not mean you avoid probate court and the legal process known as probate. A will is not legally effective, until the nominated executor presents your will to the probate court and the court accepts the will and declares it to be valid. This is a longer process in some jurisdictions. However, there are potential problems. If there’s a disgruntled family member or a need for privacy, the probate process creates a public record and information can and often is obtained by family members. To avoid making your life a public matter, you need an estate plan that includes trusts, which do not go through the probate process and do not become public records.

If I don’t have a will, the state will take it all. It’s very rare that any state will take everything, even if there is no will. The state only does that if absolutely no family members can be found, or if the state’s Medicaid program has an aggressive claw back policy that seeks to recover the cost of nursing home care provided to the decedent. If the person who died did not need Medicaid services, then it’s unlikely that the state will take the assets. More likely? A family member, determined by degree of kinship, will be entitled to inherit. Again, the law varies by state, so check with an experienced estate planning lawyer in your state.

The family gets stuck with the debts. That’s a yes and no answer. The debts of family members do not have to be paid by the family. However, they are paid by the deceased’s estate, which will be decreased by the amount of debt owed. Therefore, the family members will inherit less, but it’s not coming out of their own pockets. The debts of the deceased are to be paid by whatever assets he or she owned at the time of death. If there’s not enough in the estate, the family is not obligated to pay the debt. The exception is if the spouse was a joint borrower or otherwise legally obligated to pay the debt.

What you know and don’t know about estate planning can hurt you and your family. An easy way to address this: meet with an experienced estate planning attorney and make a plan that will distribute your assets according to your wishes.

Reference: Cherokee Tribune & Ledger-News (Feb. 1, 2020) “I’m dead, now what? Myths about deaths in Georgia”