What Legal Documents Should You Have?

You might think that the coronavirus pandemic has caused everyone to get their estate planning documents in order, but the 20th annual Transamerica Retirement Survey of Retirees found that 30% of all retirees have nothing prepared—not even a will. That’s not good, for them or their families, says this timely article 6 Legal Documents Retirees Need—but Don’t Have from MoneyTalksNews.

The survey revealed some troubling facts:

Only 32% have a Health Care Power Of Attorney or Medical Proxy, which allows named persons to make medical decisions on the retiree’s behalf.

Only 30% have an Advance Directive or Living Will, sharing their end-of-life wishes for medical care.

A mere 28% have a designated Power of Attorney, so an agent can act on their behalf to pay bills and manage finances, if they are too sick to do so.

Worse, only 19% have written funeral and burial arrangements. Their families will be left to make all the decisions.

18% have a Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) waiver, which is needed so someone else may speak with health care and insurance providers on their behalf.

11% have a Trust of any kind.

The study shines a bright light on a big problem that will be faced by families, if their elders have not taken steps to prepare for incapacity or death. Ignoring the problem does not make it go away. It becomes more complicated, expensive and stressful for the loved ones left behind.

These documents and a last will and testament are needed, so families have the legal right to take care of their loved ones while they are living, as well as handle their estates after they pass.

Without them, the family may find themselves having to go to court to have a guardian appointed in the event their senior loved ones are too ill to manage their financial affairs.

If the loved one should die and there is no will in place, the court will rely on the state’s estate laws to determine who inherits assets. An estranged family member could end up owning the family home and all of its contents, regardless of their absence from the family.

An experienced estate planning attorney can work with the family in a safe, socially distanced manner to have the necessary documents created, before they are needed.

Reference: MoneyTalksNews (Dec. 16, 2020) 6 Legal Documents Retirees Need—but Don’t Have

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.”

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?”

A Will, Power of Attorney and Health Care Power of Attorney: Three Documents Everyone Should Have

These three documents combined allow you to designate who you want to be responsible for your well- being, if you are unable to communicate to others on your own behalf and name who you want to receive your property. Having a will, power of attorney and health care power of attorney are the foundation of an estate plan and peace of mind, says the article “Simple steps to peace of mind” from the Traverse City Record Eagle.

If you die without a will, your state has a plan in place for you. However, you, or more correctly, your family, probably won’t like it. Your assets will be distributed according to the laws of inheritance, and people who you may not know or haven’t spoken to in years may end up inheriting your estate.

If your fate is to become incapacitated and you don’t have an estate plan, your family faces an entirely new set of challenges. Here’s what happened to one family:

A son contacted the financial advisor who had worked with the family for many years. He asked if the advisor had a power of attorney for his father. His mother had passed away two years ago, and his father had Alzheimer’s and wasn’t able to communicate or make decisions on his own behalf.

Five years ago, the financial advisor had recommended an estate planning attorney to the couple. The son called the attorney’s office and learned that his parents did make an appointment and met with the attorney about having these three documents created. However, they never moved forward with an estate plan.

The son had tried to talk with his parents over the years, but his father refused to discuss anything.

The son now had to hire that very same attorney to represent him in front of the probate court to be appointed as his father’s guardian and conservator. The son was appointed, but the court could just have easily appointed a complete stranger to these roles.

The son now has the power to help his father, but he will also have to report to the probate court every year to prove that his father’s well-being and finances are being handled properly. Having a will, power of attorney and medical power of attorney would have made this situation much easier for the family.

Guardianship is concerned with the person and his or her well-being. Conservatorship means a person has control over an individual’s financial matters and can make all decisions about property and assets.

There is a key difference between powers of attorney and conservatorship and guardianship. The person gets to name who they wish to have power of attorney. It’s someone who knows them, who they trust and they make the decision. With conservator and guardianship, it’s possible that someone you don’t know and who doesn’t know your family, holds all your legal rights.

A far better alternative is simply to meet with an estate planning attorney and have him create these three documents and whatever planning tools your situation calls for. Start by giving some thought to who you would want to be in charge of your life and your money, if you should become unable to manage your life by yourself. Then consider who you would want to have your various assets when you die. Take your notes with you to a meeting with an estate planning attorney, who will know what documents you need. Make sure to complete the process: signing all the completed documents, funding any trusts, retitling any accounts and finally, making sure your family knows where your documents are. This is a road to peace of mind, for you and your family.

Reference: Traverse City Record Eagle (June 23, 2019) “Simple steps to peace of mind”

Can I Create POA without Giving Up Control?

Seniors sometimes hesitate to sign off on a power of attorney that allows someone to act on their behalf, because they fear loss of control and exploitation. It’s not unreasonable, but it does create problems, says Daily Local News in the article “How to stay in control when appointing a power of attorney.”

On one hand, without having a signed power of attorney, which is relatively simple to obtain from an estate planning attorney, the family may be faced with going to court to file for guardianship.

Guardianship is expensive, time consuming, can limit the individual’s freedom and may even result in an appointment of someone the person does not want to be their guardian. There are some instances where guardianship is necessary.

On the other hand, the seniors who believe that a power of attorney is a powerful document that requires careful consideration, are right to give it the thoughtfulness this document deserves.

Here’s how to maintain some measure of control, while having a power of attorney:

Be certain about the agent you name. This is not a role for someone you recently met who feels like an old friend. It must be someone you would easily trust with your entire life savings, without a second thought. You need to be 100% sure that the person would act responsibly, in your best interests, following through in paying bills, consulting with experts when necessary, keeping records and being scrupulously honest and putting your interest first in everything they do.

Don’t name someone just because they are your oldest child and someone’s feelings would be hurt. If a person has money problems themselves, that person is not a good candidate for this role.

Have a backup. Or two. If your primary “attorney in fact” is unable or unwilling to act on your behalf, have a second person, or even a third, ready to act.

Ask your estate planning attorney to create documents that work for you. There are forms you can use, but they may not be appropriate for your situation. Your best bet is to have an attorney prepare a power of attorney document that meets your needs. For instance, you may not want to give someone unlimited power, or you may want to give them power to do everything but gift assets. You might want to give them the ability to cash in insurance policies for your medical expenses, but not to change the beneficiaries on your insurance policies.

If you want two agents to act together, you need to know whether your bank, brokerage house, financial institution or financial advisor will accept two. Will they be able to work together?

Separate financial power of attorney and health care power of attorney. One person does not need to handle all your tasks. One of your children may be great in crisis situations, while another is good at finances. Divide up the tasks, so that each can participate in decision making, in different areas.

Who needs to know about your power of attorney? It’s best if all your children know if one of them has been named attorney in fact and others have not. They will find out eventually, and it may be better, even if there is some grumbling, for them to know in advance of a crisis.

Fire at will. You retain the right to fire your agent(s), by serving them with a revocation or by appointing another attorney in fact. If the family is not getting along and things have turned ugly, speak with your estate planning attorney to ensure that the proper protections are in place.

Lastly, protect yourself by keeping access to debit cards, credit cards, usernames, passwords and online access to bank and investments carefully secure. If you run into a problem, don’t hide from it—get the help you need, either from a family member, trusted friend, or your estate planning attorney.

Reference: Daily Local News (June 11, 2019) “How to stay in control when appointing a power of attorney”

Kids Grown Up? Protect Them with These Three Documents
Protect your family with these three documents.

Kids Grown Up? Protect Them with These Three Documents

Without the right documents in place, you do not have the legal right to protect your own children, once they turn 18, says The National Law Review in an unsettling but must-read article titled “Three Critical Legal Documents Every Parent Should Get in Place Now to Safeguard Their Adult Children.”

There are only three documents and they are fairly straightforward. There is no reason not to have them in place. If your adult child was incapacitated by an accident or an illness, you would want to speak with the medical staff to find out how they are and what decisions need to be made. Whether you were making a phone call or arriving at the hospital, a nurse or doctor would not be permitted to speak with you about your own adult child’s condition or be involved with making any medical decisions.

It sounds unreasonable, and perhaps it is, but that is the law. There are steps you can take to ensure that you are not in this situation.

HIPAA Authorization Form gives you the authority to speak with healthcare providers. This is a federal law (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) that safeguards who can access an adult’s private health data. HIPAA prevents healthcare providers from revealing any information to you or anyone else about a patient’s status. The practitioners could face severe penalties for violating HIPAA.

This is why you want to have a HIPAA authorization signed by your adult child and naming you as an authorized recipient.  This will give you the ability to ask for and receive information about your child’s health status, progress and treatment. This is especially important, if your child is unconscious or in an unresponsive state. The alternative? Going to court. That’s not what you want to be doing during a health emergency.

A Healthcare Power of Attorney needs to be in place, so you can be named his or her “medical agent” and have the ability to view their medical records and make informed decisions on their behalf. Without this (or a court-appointed guardianship), healthcare decisions will be in the hands of healthcare providers only. That’s not a bad thing, if you implicitly trust your child’s doctor. However, if your child is incapacitated in an out-of-town hospital with healthcare providers you don’t know, you will want to be able to make decisions on his or her behalf.

Note that physicians prefer a single medical agent, not a handful. The concern is that if time is a critical factor and a group of family members do not agree on care, it may compromise the healthcare services that can be provided. You can name multiple agents in priority order. A mother might be listed as the medical agent, and if she is unable or unwilling to serve, the second person would be the father.

The third document is a General Power of Attorney. This would give you the right to make financial decisions on your child’s behalf, if they were to become incapacitated. You would have the legal right to manage bank accounts, pay bills, sign tax returns, apply for government benefits, break or apply a lease and conduct activities on behalf of your child. Without this document, you won’t be able to help your child without a court-appointed conservatorship.

Keep in mind that these documents need to be updated every few years. If you try to use an older document, the bank or hospital may not accept them. Your adult child also has the ability to revoke these documents at any time, just by saying they revoke them or by putting it in writing. If you have an adult child living out of state, you want to have these documents prepared for your home state and their state of residence.

Finally, this is not a time to download forms and hope for the best. An estate planning attorney will know more specifically what forms are used in your state and help you make sure that they are prepared correctly.

Reference: The National Law Review (Feb. 11, 2019) “Three Critical Legal Documents Every Parent Should Get in Place Now to Safeguard Their Adult Children”