How Do I Talk about End-Of-Life Decisions?

With the coronavirus pandemic motivating people to think about what they prioritize in their lives, experts say you should also take the time to determine your own end-of-life plans.

Queens News Service’s recent article entitled “How to have the hardest conversation: Making end-of-life decisions” reports that in this coronavirus pandemic, some people are getting scared and are realizing that they don’t have a will. They also haven’t considered what would happen, if they became extremely ill.

They now can realize that this is something that could have an impact upon them.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 70% of Americans say they’d prefer to die at home, while 70% of people die in a hospital, nursing home, or a long-term care facility. This emphasizes the importance of discussing end-of-life plans with family members.

According to a survey of Californians taken by the state Health Care Foundation, although 60% of people say that not burdening their loved ones with extremely tough decisions is important, 56% have failed to talk to them about their final wishes.

“Difficult as they may be, these conversations are essential,” says American Bar Foundation (ABF) Research Professor Susan P. Shapiro, who authored In Speaking for the Dying: Life-and-Death Decisions in Intensive Care.

“Now is a good time to provide loved ones with the information, reassurance and trust they need to make decisions,” Shapiro says.

Odds are the only person who knows your body as well as you do, is your doctor.

When thinking about your end-of-life plans, talk with your doctor and see what kind of insight she or he can provide. They’ve certainly had experience with other older patients.

If you want to make certain your wishes are carried out as you intend, detail all of your plans in writing. That way it will be very clear what your loved ones should do, if a decision needs to be made. This will eliminate some stress in a very stressful situation.

Even after the COVID-19 pandemic is over, everyone will still need a will.

Talk with an experienced elder law or estate planning attorney to make certain that you have all of the necessary legal documents for end-of-life decisions.

Reference: Queens News Service (May 22, 2020) “How to have the hardest conversation: Making end-of-life decisions”

Suggested Key Terms: Elder Law Attorney, Elder Care

Are You One of the Many Headed toward Financial Disaster?

You may be saving for retirement, paying down debt or simply budgeting for your everyday expenses. Whatever your goal is, it’s critical to have a plan in place. Some planning now can go a long way in making sure your finances are as healthy as possible. Without any type of plan, you’re just blindly throwing your money around and hoping for the best.

Motley Fool’s recent article entitled “A Whopping Number of Older Adults May Be Headed Toward a Financial Disaster” says that millions of older adults are making a critical mistake as they plan for the future. If they don’t make any changes soon, it could be extremely expensive.

More than one-third (34%) of baby boomers admit that they haven’t conducted any financial planning whatsoever in the last two years, according to the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors. Therefore, they haven’t planned for retirement, managed a budget, set any goals, reviewed their investments, considered their insurance needs, or done any tax or estate planning. It’s not just baby boomers who aren’t planning. Almost a quarter (24%) of Gen Xers also say they haven’t done any financial planning over the past two years. The generations most likely to have thought about the future are the millennial generation and Gen Z — only 16% and 15%, respectively, said that they haven’t done any recent financial planning.

While all of us should be thinking about our future plans, it’s even more essential for older Americans to focus on their finances. If you’re close to retirement age and haven’t reviewed your investments or thought about your retirement plan recently, you’ll have a hard time knowing if you’re on track. The longer you wait to know if you’re off track, the more difficult it’ll be to make changes and to catch up.

Baby boomers should have plans in place, in case the worst happens. Review your insurance and make an estate plan to be certain that your family is protected if something happens to you. Look at your plans regularly to make sure everything is up to date.

The first part of creating a financial plan is to set goals, like preparing for retirement, paying down your debt, or creating an emergency fund. Next, examine your money situation to find extra cash to put toward those goals. Begin monitoring your spending to get a good idea of just where your money is going every month. It’s a lot harder to stay on a budget and save more, if you don’t know how much you’re spending. Once you get into the habit of tracking your spending, it’ll be easier to discover parts of your budget to cut back. You can start reallocating that money toward your financial goals.

You should also remember that you’ll need to review your plan regularly to make adjustments when needed. This is especially vital when saving for retirement, because there many factors to consider as you’re saving. At least once a year, check that your retirement savings goal is still accurate, and decide whether your current savings are on track to reach that goal. Take a look at your investments to see if your asset allocation is still aligned with your risk tolerance.

Reference: Motley Fool (Feb. 8, 2020) “A Whopping Number of Older Adults May Be Headed Toward a Financial Disaster”

C19 UPDATE: Keeping Ourselves and Our Elderly Loved Ones Safer

We have all been warned that our elderly loved ones are at heightened risk during the coronavirus pandemic. If you are a caregiver for someone in this high-risk population, here are some tips from Dr. Alicia Arbaje, who specializes in internal medicine and geriatrics at Johns Hopkins.

  1. Keep Yourself Well
    Be sure to follow all the guidelines and precautions about social distancing, hand washing, and cleaning to keep yourself well.
  2. Limit In-Person Visits
    It may be emotionally challenging but keeping in-person visits to a minimum is the best way to reduce the risk of infection. When you can’t be there in-person, use technology to stay in touch. Teach your older loved ones how to use video chat applications. Remember to add captions to your videos if they are hearing-impaired. Also, encourage others to telephone or send cards or notes as well.
  3. Be Creative About Home-Based Projects
    Now may be a great time to encourage your loved ones to record their personal stories, organize family photos or reconnect with old friends online.
  4. Decide on a Plan
    Discuss now your emergency response plan. Who will be the emergency contact? Do you know where the estate planning documents are and can you quickly access them, especially health care directives?

If you or your loved one do not have an updated will or trust and health care documents, please reach out to our office. We can help get planning in place quickly and easily and are even offering virtual meetings now to keep everyone safe.

What if your elder loved one starts to develop symptoms?

If you or your loved one learn that you might have been exposed to someone diagnosed with COVID-19 or if anyone in your household develops symptoms such as cough, fever or shortness of breath, call your family doctor, nurse helpline or urgent care facility. For a medical emergency such as severe shortness of breath or high fever, call 911.

Resource: Johns Hopkins Medicine, Coronavirus and COVID-19: Caregiving for the Elderly, https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/coronavirus/coronavirus-caregiving-for-the-elderly

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”

Creating an Estate Plan Should Be a New Year’s Resolution

Many people think of estate planning as a way to save on taxes as their hard-earned assets are passed from one generation to the next. That’s certainly a part of estate planning, but there are many other aspects of estate planning that focus on protecting the person and their family. They are detailed in the article “An estate planning checklist should be a top New Year’s resolution” from the Houston Business Journal.

Now is a good time to start the new year off right to put an estate plan in place. For those who have an estate plan, it’s a good time to revisit living documents that need to be updated to reflect changes in a person’s life, family dynamics, changes in exemption limits and the recently passed SECURE Act.

Here are the top four items to make sure that your estate plan is ready for 2020.

Take a look at your financial situation. No matter how modest or massive your assets, just about everyone has an estate that’s worth protecting. Most people have something they want to pass along to their children or grandchildren. An estate plan simply formalizes these wishes and minimizes the chances that the family will fight over how assets are distributed.

Many people meet with their team at least once a year to get a clear picture of their financial status. This allows the estate planning attorney to review any changes that may impact how the estate is structured, including tailoring gifting strategies to reduce the tax burden.

Put your wishes on paper, and your affairs in order. Without a will, there’s no way for anyone to know what your wishes are and how you’d want your assets passed to others. A will spells out who gets what and avoids having the estate administered by state laws. A living will is also needed to establish medical power of attorney and state wishes about life support and what medical care you may or may not want to receive. That can include everything from blood transfusions, palliative care, diagnostic tests or the use of a respirator. A financial POA is needed to give someone the legal authority to make decisions on your behalf, if you become incapacitated.

With these estate planning documents, you relieve family members of the burden of guessing what you might have wanted, especially during emergency situations when emotions are running high.

Asset estate and gift tax exemptions for 2020. The exemption for 2020 has increased to $1.58 million. This eliminates federal estate taxes on amounts under that limit that are gifted to family members during a person’s lifetime or left to them upon a person’s death. This is a significant increase from prior years. In 1997, the exemption was $600,000. It rose to $5.49 million in 2018, and as a result of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, was $11.4 million in 2019.

Understand the “claw back.” The exemption amount will increase every year until 2025. There was some uncertainty about what would happen if someone uses their $11.58 million exemption in 2020 and then dies in 2026, when the number could revert back to the $5 million range. Would the IRS say that the person used more of their exemption than they were entitled to? The agency recently issued final regulations that will protect individuals who take advantage of these exemption limits through 2025. Gifts will be sheltered by the increasing exemption limits when the gifts are actually made.

Continuing changes in the tax laws are examples of why an annual review of an estate plan is necessary. The one thing we can all be certain of is change, and keeping estate plans up to date makes sure that the family benefits from all available changes to the law.

Reference: Houston Business Journal (Jan. 1, 2020) “An estate planning checklist should be a top New Year’s resolution”

 

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”

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”

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”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does Your Estate Plan Include Your Pets?

Estate planning helps to create a strategy for managing assets while we are living and their distribution when we pass away. That includes determining what happens to our tangible property as well as financial investments, retirement accounts, etc. An estate plan can also be used to protect the well-being of our beloved companion animals, says The Balance in the article “Estate Planning for Fido: How to Set Up a Pet Trust.”

Pet trusts were once thought of as something only for extremely wealthy or eccentric individuals, but today many ‘regular’ people use pet trusts to ensure that if they die before their pets, their pets will have a secure future.

Every state and the District of Columbia, except for Washington, now has laws governing the creation and use of pet trusts. Knowing how they work and what they can and cannot do will be helpful if you are considering having a pet trust made as part of your estate plan.

When you set up a trust, you are the “grantor.” You have the authority as creator of the trust to direct how you want the assets in the trust to be managed, for yourself and any beneficiaries of the trust. The same principal holds true for pet trusts. You set up the trust and name a trustee. The trustee oversees the money and any other assets placed in the trust for the pet’s benefit. Those funds are to be used to pay for the pet’s care and related expenses. These expenses can include:

  • Regular care by a veterinarian,
  • Emergency veterinarian care,
  • Grooming, and
  • Feeding and boarding costs.

A pet trust can also be used to provide directions for end of life care and treatment for pets, as well as burial or cremation arrangements you may want for your pet.

In most instances, the pet trust, once established, remains in place for the entire life span of the pet. Some states, however, place a time limit on how long a pet trust can continue. For animals with very long lives, like certain birds or horses, you’ll want to be sure the pet trust will be created to last for the entire life span of your pet. In several states, the limit is 21 years.

An estate planning attorney who has experience with pet trusts will know the laws of your state, so you’ll be able to create a pet trust for your pet.

Creating a pet trust is like creating any other type of trust. An estate planning attorney can help with drafting the documents, helping you select a trustee, and if you’re worried about your pet outliving the first trustee, naming any successor trustees.

Here are some things to consider when setting up your pet’s trust:

  • What’s your pet’s current standard of living and care?
  • What kind of care do you expect the pet’s new caregiver to offer?
  • Who do you want to be the pet’s caregiver, and who should be the successor caregivers?
  • How often should the caregiver report on the pet’s status to the trustee?
  • How long you expect the pet to live?
  • How likely your pet is to develop a serious illness?
  • How much money do you think your pet’s caregiver will need to cover all pet-related expenses?
  • What should happen to the money, if any remains in the pet trust, after the pet passes away?

The last item is important if you don’t want any funds to disappear. You might want to have the money split up to your beneficiaries to your will, or you may want to have it donated to charity. The pet trust needs to include a contingency plan for these scenarios.

Another point: think about when you want the pet trust to go into effect. You may not expect to become incapacitated, but these things do happen. Your pet trust can be designed to become effective if you become incapacitated.

Make sure the pet trust clearly identifies your pet so no one can abuse its terms and access trust funds fraudulently. One way to do this is to have your pet microchipped and record the chip number in the pet document. Also include photos of your pet and a physical description.

Be as specific as necessary when creating the document. If there are certain types of foods that you use, list them. If there are regular routines that your pet is comfortable with and that you’d like the caregiver to continue, then detail them. The more information you can provide, the more likely it will be that your pet will continue to live as they did when you were taking care of them.

Finally, make sure that your estate planning attorney, the trustee, and the pet’s designated caregiver all have a copy of your pet trust, so they are certain to follow your wishes.

Reference: The Balance (March 27, 2019) “Estate Planning for Fido: How to Set Up a Pet Trust”