How to Plan for Incapacity

Planning for incapacity is just as important as planning for death. One is certain, the other is extremely likely. Therefore, it makes sense to prepare in advance, advises the article “Planning ahead for incapacity helps you and family” from The Press-Enterprise.

Let’s start by defining capacity. Each state has its own language but for the most part, incapacity means that a person is incapable of making decisions or performing certain acts. A concerned adult child is usually the one trying to have a senior parent declared incapacitated.

A person who has a mental or physical disorder may still be capable of entering into a contract, getting married, making medical decisions, executing wills or trusts, or performing other actions. However, before a person is declared incapacitated by medical professionals or a court, having a plan in place makes a world of difference for the family or trusted person who will be caring for them. Certain legal documents are needed.

Power of Attorney. This is the primary document needed in case of incapacity. There are several kinds, and an estate planning attorney will know which one will be best for your situation. A “springing” power of attorney becomes effective, only when a person is deemed incapacitated and continues throughout their incapacity. A POA can be general, broadly authorizing a named person to act on different matters, like finances, determining where you will live, entering into contracts, caring for pets, etc. A POA can also be drafted with limited and specific powers, like to sell a car within a certain timeframe.

The POA can be activated before you become incapacitated. Let’s say that you are diagnosed with early-stage dementia. You may still have legal capacity but might wish a trusted family member to help handle matters. For elderly people who feel more comfortable having someone else handle their finances or the sale of their home, a POA can be created to allow a trusted individual to act on their behalf for these specific tasks.

A POA is a powerful document. A POA gives another person control of your life. Yes, your named agent has a fiduciary duty to put your interests first and could be sued for mismanagement or abuse. However, the goal of a POA is to protect your interests, not put them at risk. Choosing a person to be your POA must be done with care. You should also be sure to name an alternate POA. A POA expires on your death, so the person will not be involved in any decisions regarding your estate, burial or funeral arrangements. That is the role of the executor, named in your will.

Advance health care directive, or living will, provides your instructions about medical care. This document is one that most people would rather not think about. However, it is very important if your wishes are to be followed. It explains what kind of medical care you do or do not want, in the event of dementia, a stroke, coma or brain injury. It gets into the details: do you want resuscitation, mechanical ventilation or feeding tubes to keep you alive? It can also be used for post-death wishes concerning autopsies, organ donation, cremation or burial.

The dramatic events of 2020 have taught us all that we don’t know what is coming in the near future. Planning in advance is a kindness to yourself and your family.

Reference: The Press-Enterprise (July 19, 2020) “Planning ahead for incapacity helps you and family”

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Preparing for an Emergency Includes Power of Attorney

Unexpected events can happen at any time. Without a backup plan, finances are vulnerable. The importance of having an estate plan and organized legal and financial documents on a scale of one to ten is fifteen, advises the article “Are you prepared to hand over your finances to someone in an emergency?” from USA Today. Maybe it doesn’t matter so much if your phone bill is a month late but miss a life insurance premium payment and your policy may lapse. If you’re over 70, chances are slim to none that you’ll be able to purchase a new one.

When estate plans and finances are organized to the point that you can easily hand them over to a trusted spouse, adult child or other responsible person, you gain the peace of mind of knowing you and your family are prepared for anything. Someone can take care of you and your family, in case the unexpected happens.

A financial power of attorney (POA) gives another person the legal authority to take financial actions on your behalf. The person you give this responsibility to, should be someone you trust and who will put your best interests ahead of their own. An estate planning attorney will be able to create a power of attorney that can be very specific about the powers that are granted.

You may want your POA to be able to pay bills, and manage your investment accounts, for instance, but you may not want them to make changes to trusts. A personalized power of attorney document can give you that level of control.

Consider your routine for taking care of household finances. Most of us do these tasks on autopilot. We don’t think about how it would be if someone else had to take over, but we should. Take a pad of paper and make notes about every task you complete in a given month: what bills do you pay monthly, which are paid quarterly and what comes due only once or twice a year? By making a detailed record of the tasks, you’ll save your spouse or family member a great deal of time and angst.

Is your paperwork organized so that someone else will be able to find things? Most people create their own systems, but they are not always understandable to anyone else. Create a folder or a file that holds all of your important documents, like insurance policies and investment accounts, legal documents and deeds.

If you pay bills online, naming someone else on the account so they have access is ideal. If not, then try consolidating the bills you can. Many banks allow users to set up bill payment through one account.

Keep legal documents and records up to date. If you haven’t reviewed your estate planning documents in more than three years, now is the time to speak with your estate planning attorney to ensure that your estate plan still reflects your wishes. Call your estate planning attorney to discuss your next steps.

Reference: USA Today (March 20, 2020) “Are you prepared to hand over your finances to someone in an emergency?”

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”

How Does a Conservatorship Work?

Millennials, now in their 30s, need to begin thinking about caring for their boomer parents, as medical, financial and mental health needs come up. For lucky families, this will mean conversations with travel agents and financial advisors. For those not so fortunate, it will mean conversations with doctors, nursing home staff and, in some cases, with lawyers regarding conservatorships, says KAKE.com in the article “What is a Conservatorship and How Does It Work?”

A conservatorship is a form of legal guardianship of an adult. The conservator has legal authority over certain parts of the person’s life. It may be a “limited conservatorship,” where only specific matters are under the conservator’s control, like health or finances. The “full conservatorship” gives the conservator complete control over the person’s life, in the same way that a parent has legal control over a child.

Conservatorship is granted when the person no longer has the capacity to make decisions on their own behalf. In almost all cases, this is based on their mental capacity. While it can happen, physical incapacity rarely is acceptable for conservatorship to be awarded.

Some of the common reasons for conservatorship by way of mental incapacity, include if the person is in a coma, suffers from Alzheimer’s, dementia or severe mental illness, or has a permanent or genetic mental disability that prevents them from ever reaching legal maturity or independence.

Conservatorship is a legal proceeding, which must be granted by an officer or appointee of the court. It’s typically handled by a state probate court or family court. Hearings are usually held by a judge or a magistrate. A conservatorship may be part of estate planning. Most conservatorships require medical paperwork, but in all instances, the potential ward must have the opportunity to be heard by the decision maker and to present their case, if they wish, as to why conservatorship should not be granted. An individual also has the right to challenge the conservatorship, in court, at any time, if they disagree.

Power of Attorney may be used to accomplish some of the things that would be accomplished by a conservatorship. A POA gives a person the ability to make legally binding decisions for someone else, and the scope can be narrow or broad. The POA, however, is granted at the discretion of the person giving another person this power.

An estate planning attorney will be able to discuss all of the rights, responsibilities and fiduciary obligations of a conservatorship. Most have had experience with conservatorship and will be able to help the family and the individual make informed decisions in the best interest of the individual.

Reference: KAKE.com (December 11, 2019) “What is a Conservatorship and How Does It Work?”

When are You Done with Estate Planning?

A family has set up their estate plan. Two sons are already in the farming business and are thriving. Their daughter will receive the proceeds from a second-to-die life insurance policy and their considerable savings. The amounts are not equal in amount, but they are an equitable inheritance, and it seems like the couple has done its homework.

However, asks an article in The Courier, “The will is done, you’re sitting pretty—but are you?”

Estate planning is a lot like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Like farming, it gets put together over time, piece by piece. Each piece represents something that needs to be done. For instance, a key part of the puzzle is having a last will and testament. That functions like building the outside frame of the puzzle, for those who start their puzzles by building the perimeter first. It frames the rest of your estate plan.

Other pieces are included within the will, like naming a personal representative, or executor. This is the person who is in charge of distributing your assets and making sure that the directions in your will are followed, when you pass away.

Do you have a plan for what happens when you die? For instance, if a husband dies, is there a plan for the wife to maintain the farm, or will she sell machinery and other transitory assets?

For the couple mentioned above who has the will, a transition spelled out in the will and a second-to-die policy in place to supplement the daughter’s inheritance, congratulations: they have many pieces of the puzzle in place. However, that’s not everything.

The other parts of the puzzle have to do with issues while the couple is still living. What happens if one or both are injured, or become ill? Who should take over the farming in the short or long term? Who will care for the spouse or spouses? Will they depend on each other for caretaking, or their daughter?

The number one worry for seniors is whether they have enough money to last until they die. However, by taking a portion of their savings and investing in a long-term care insurance policy, they can rest assured that they or their spouse will get the care they need—in a nursing home or at home—without burning through the family’s savings.

This piece of the estate planning puzzle—preparing for illness or disability—is often missing, and it can turn the rest of the estate plan into a pile of unattached pieces.

Speak with an estate planning attorney today to make sure your estate plan does not have any missing pieces. If you have not recently reviewed your estate plan in the last three or four years, schedule a review. Changes in the law and changes in your own life may make your old estate plan out of date and may no longer achieve the goals you had in mind.

Reference: The Courier (Sep. 4, 2019) “The will is done, you’re sitting pretty—but are you?”

What’s Better, A Living Trust or a Will?

Everyone knows what a last will and testament is. However, a will is not always the best way to distribute your assets, explains the Times Herald-Record in the article “Living trusts are better choice than wills.” Most people think that by having a will alone, they will make it clear who they want to receive their assets when they die. However, wills are used by the court in a proceeding called “probate,” if the only estate plan you have is a will. The court proceeding is to establish that the will is valid. Depending upon where you live, probate can take a year before assets are distributed to beneficiaries.

Certain family members must receive notifications, when a will is submitted to probate. Some people will receive notices, even if they are not mentioned in the will. This can lead to all kinds of awkward situations, especially from estranged or unknown relatives. The person who is the executor of the will is required to locate these relatives, and until they are found and notified, the probate process comes to a standstill.

There are instances where a judge will allow a legal notice to be published in a local newspaper, after valid attempts to find relatives aren’t successful. If there is a disabled beneficiary, a minor beneficiary, a relative or beneficiary who can’t be located, or a relative who has been incarcerated, the judge often appoints lawyers to represent these parties’ interests and the estate pays for the attorney’s fees.

Depending on the situation, the executor may be required to furnish a family tree, or a friend of the decedent must sign an affidavit attesting that the person never had any children.

Thinking of disinheriting a child? Anyone who is disinherited in a will, receives a notice about that and is legally permitted to contest the will. That can lead to years of expensive litigation, including discovery demands, depositions, motions and possibly a trial. Like most litigation, will contests usually end in a settlement. The disinherited relative often gets a share of the inheritance, even when the decedent didn’t want them to get anything.

For many families, a living trust is a better alternative. They also serve as disability planning, naming people who will manage the assets of the trust, in case of incapacity. They are private documents, so their information does not become public knowledge, like the details of a will.

A qualified estate planning attorney will help you determine what estate planning tools will work best to achieve your goals, while maintaining your privacy and ensuring that assets pass to heirs in a discrete manner.

Reference: Times Herald-Record (Oct. 26, 2019) “Living trusts are better choice than wills”

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”

Do It Yourself Estate Planning Leads to Bad Outcomes

While the attraction of simplicity and low cost is appealing, the results are all too often disastrous, affirms Insurance News in the article “Mind Your Mouse Clicks: DIY Estate Planning War Stories.” The increasing number of glitches that estate planning attorneys are seeing after the fact has increased, as much as the number of people using online estate planning forms. For estate planning attorneys who are concerned about their clients and their families, the disasters are troubling.

A few clumsy mouse clicks can derail an estate plan and adversely affect the family. Here are five real life examples.

Details matter. One of the biggest and most routinely made mistakes in DIY estate planning goes hand-in-hand with simple wills, where both spouses want to leave everything to each other. Except this typical couple neglected something. See if you can figure out what they did wrong:

John’s will: I leave everything to my wife Phyllis.

Phyllis’ will: I leave everything to my wife Phyllis.

Unless John dies and Phyllis marries someone named Phyllis, this will is not going to work. It seems like a simple enough error, but the courts are not forgiving of errors.

Life insurance mistakes. Jeff owns a life insurance policy and has been using its cash value as a “rainy day” fund. He had intended to swap the life insurance into his irrevocable grantor trust in exchange for low-basis stock held in the trust. The swap would remove the life insurance from Jeff’s estate without exposure to the estate tax three-year rule, and the stock would receive a stepped-up basis at death, leading to tax savings on both sides of the swap.

However, Jeff had a stroke recently, and he’s incapacitated. He planned ahead though, or so he thought. He downloaded a free durable power of attorney form from a nonprofit that helps the elderly. The POA specifically included the power to change ownership of his life insurance.

Jeff put his name in the space designated for the POA. As a result, the insurance company won’t accept the form, and the swap isn’t going to happen.

Incomplete documents. Ellen created an online will leaving her entire probate estate to her husband. It was fast, cheap and she was delighted. However, she forgot to click on the space where the executor is named. The website address for the website company is the default information in the form, which is what was created when she completed the will. The court is not likely to appoint the website as her executor. Her heirs are stuck, unless she corrects this, hoping the court will understand. Hope is a terrible estate plan.

Letting the form define the estate plan. Single parent Joan has a 6-year-old son. Her will includes a standard trust for minors, providing income and principal for her son until he turns 21, at which point he inherits everything. Joan met with a life insurance advisor and applied for a $1 million convertible 20–year term life insurance policy. It will be payable to the trust. However, her son has autism, and receives government benefits. There are no special needs provisions in her will, so her son is at risk of losing any benefits, if and when he inherits the policy proceeds.

Don’t set it and forget it. One couple created online wills, when the estate tax exclusion was $2 million. They created a credit shelter, or bypass, trust to reduce their estate taxes, by allowing each of them to use their estate tax exclusion amount. However, the federal estate tax exclusion today is $11.4 million per person. With $4 million in separate assets and a $2 million life insurance policy payable to children from a previous marriage, the husband’s separate assets will go into the bypass trust. None of it will go to his wife.

An experienced estate planning attorney who is licensed to practice in your state is the best source for creating and updating estate plans, preparing for incapacity and ensuring that tax planning is done efficiently.

Reference: Insurance News Net (Sep. 9, 2019) “Mind Your Mouse Clicks: DIY Estate Planning War Stories”

Electronic Wills Are Here—But Should You Have One?

Florida is one of the early states permitting residents to have wills, along with some other types of estate planning documents, signed and completed electronically and online. This will require remote notarizations and witnesses to appear via certain approved secure video chat services, reports News Chief in the article “Electronic wills are coming, but are they a good idea?”

A movement to pass a similar law failed in 2017, as the result of a veto by then Governor Scott. However, a revised and approved version of the bill passed this summer and has already been signed into law by Governor DeSantis.

Under the new law, notaries will be required to undergo new training in order to be able to conduct executions of electronic wills. Certain qualified and state-approved custodians will oversee safeguarding the completed electronic wills for safekeeping, until the creator of the will dies, at which time the electronic wills may be electronically filed with the appropriate probate court.

Florida is only the fourth state to implement laws related to the execution and storage requirements for electronic wills. One concern is whether other states will honor these documents.

If other states will not accept the electronic wills, then a deceased person’s assets that are subject to probate administration in other states may not go to the person’s intended beneficiaries. Traditional, hard copy will executions typically occur in an attorney’s office, with proper procedures and safeguards put into place by a licensed attorney who practices in this area of the law. Many of these same procedures and safeguards will not be in place for electronic execution of electronic wills.

There is concern that these wills present an enticing target and that many family members will argue that the will is not valid, because of undue influence or a lack of capacity.

The 2019 version of the law has safeguards, that were not in the 2017 law, to protect vulnerable adults. However, until these electronic laws go through probate contests, there will not be much clarity for estate planning attorneys. One last concern—if the documents can be executed electronically, there are greater opportunities for criminals or people with bad intentions to more easily take advantage of vulnerable seniors.

Whether you agree that electronic wills are the future, this is still a very new process that has yet to be tried and tested. There will likely be more questions raised in the next few years about their safety and includes cases that will be taken to court to resolve issues and challenges.

For most people, this is the time to wait and see how the electronic will scenario works out. It may take a few years before the bumps are ironed out. In the meantime, meet with an estate planning attorney to create an estate plan that is on paper and follows a traditional process.

Reference: News Chief (August 23, 2019) “Electronic wills are coming, but are they a good idea?”

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?”