Spare Your Family From a Feud: Make Sure You Have a Will

If for no other reason than to avoid fracturing the family, as they squabble over who gets Aunt Nina’s sideboard or Uncle Bruno’s collection of baseball cards, everyone needs a will. It is true that having an estate plan created does require us to consider what we want to happen after we have died, which most of us would rather not think about.

However, whether we want to think about it or not, having an estate plan in place, and that includes a will, is a gift of peace we give to our loved ones and ourselves. It’s peace of mind that our family is being told exactly what we want them to do after we pass, and peace of mind to ourselves that we’ve put our plan into place.

A recent article from Fatherly, “How to Write a Will: 8 Tips Every Parent Needs to Know,” starts with the basic premise that a will prevents family squabbles. Families fight, when they don’t have clear direction of what the deceased wanted. That’s just one reason to have a last will and testament. However, there are other reasons.

A will is one way to ensure that your property is eventually distributed as you wish. Without a will, your estate is administered as an “intestate estate,” which means the state’s laws will determine who receives your assets after you pass. In some states, that means your spouse gets half of your estate, with your parents getting the rest (if there are no children). If the parents have died and there are no children, the rest of the estate may go to your siblings.

Most people—some studies say as many as 60% of Americans—don’t have a will. It’s hard to say why they don’t: maybe they don’t want to accept their own mortality, maybe they don’t understand what will happen when they die without a will, or perhaps they want to wreak havoc on their families. However, having a will is essential.

Don’t delay. If you don’t have a will in place, stop putting it off. Creating a will gives you the opportunity to effectuate your wishes, not that of the state. What if you don’t want your long-lost brother showing up just to receive a portion of your estate? If you don’t want someone to receive any of your assets, you need to have a will. Otherwise, there’s no way to know how the distribution will play out.

Be thoughtful about how you distribute your assets. If you have children and your will gives them your assets when they reach 18, will they be prepared to manage without blowing their inheritance in a month? A qualified estate planning attorney will be able to help you create a plan for distributing your wealth to children or other heirs in a sequence that will match their financial abilities. You may want to create a trust that will hold the assets, with a trustee who can ensure that assets are distributed in a wise and timely manner.

Every family is different, and today’s families, which often include children from prior marriages, require special planning. If you have remarried and have not legally adopted your spouse’s children from a previous marriage, they are not your legal heirs. If you want to make sure they inherit money or a specific asset, you’ll need to state that clearly in your will. If you are not married to your partner, they will not have any rights to your estate, unless a will is created that directs the assets you want them to inherit.

Parents of young children absolutely need a will. If you do not, and both parents pass away at the same time, their future will be determined by the court. They could end up in foster care, while awaiting a court decision. Battling grandparents may create a tumultuous situation. The court could also name a guardian who you would never have chosen. A will lets you decide.

Speak with an estate planning attorney to make sure you have a will that is properly prepared and follows the laws of your state. You also want to have a power of attorney and a health care agent named. Having these plans made before you need them, gives you the ability to express your wishes in a way that can be legally enforced.

Reference: Fatherly (Feb. 6, 2019) “How to Write a Will: 8 Tips Every Parent Needs to Know”

A Love Letter to Your Family
Senior couple meeting with an elder law attorney

A Love Letter to Your Family

Now, to the 70% of Americans who do not have an estate plan, the article “Senior Spotlight: Composing the ‘family love letter’” from the Lockport Journal should help you understand why this is so important. One reason why people don’t take care of this simple task, is because they don’t fully understand why estate planning is needed. They think it’s only for the wealthy, or that it’s only for old people, or even that it’s only about death and taxes.

Consider this idea: an estate plan is about protecting yourself while you are alive, protecting your family when you have passed and leaving a legacy for the living.

Some of the main elements of an estate plan are to create and execute documents that provide for incapacity and death, as well as provide information about your assets, liabilities and wishes.

You’ve spent a lifetime accumulating assets. It is now time to sit down with family members and have a heart-to-heart talk about the details of the estate and what your intentions are with respect to its distribution. The subject of death can be challenging for all. However, discussing your estate plan is vital, if you want to protect your family from what might come after you are gone. Each family has its own goals, so it’s a good idea to talk about it frankly, while you still can.

Without discussions and an estate, the chances of a family split, assets not going where you had intended and unnecessarily higher costs in taxes and legal fees, are a very real possibility.

If speaking about these topics is too hard, you may want to write your family a love letter. It would contain all the information that your family would need at the time of your death or if you become incapacitated because of illness or injury.

Your estate plan should also include the documents needed, so your family can make decisions on your behalf, if you are incapacitated. That includes a power of attorney, a health care directive and may include others specific to your situation.

Ideally, all this information will be located in one convenient place. Don’t put it on a computer where you use a password. If the family cannot access your computer, all your hard work will be useless to them. Put it in a folder or a notebook, that is clearly labeled and tell family members where it is.

They’ll need this information:

  • A list of your important contacts — your estate planning attorney, financial advisor, CPA, insurance broker and medical professionals.
  • Credit card information, frequent flier miles.
  • Insurance and benefits including all health, life, disability, long-term care, Medicare, property deeds, employment and any military benefits.
  • Documents including your will, power of attorney, birth certificates, military papers, divorce decrees and citizenship papers.

Think of these materials and discussions as your opportunity to make a statement for the future generation. If you don’t have an estate plan in place already or if you have not reviewed your estate plan in more than a few years, it’s time to make an appointment for a review. Your life may have not changed, but tax laws have, and you’ll want to be sure your estate is not entangled in old strategies that no longer benefit your family.

Reference: Lockport Journal (Feb. 16, 2019) “Senior Spotlight: Composing the ‘family love letter’”

Moving to a Care Community? Check the Fine Print
Group Of Senior Couples Enjoying Meal Together In an Assisted Living Facility

Moving to a Care Community? Check the Fine Print

Reading the fine print when purchasing a home in a retirement community or a care community is intimidating. The typeface is tiny, you’ve got boxes to pack and movers to schedule and, well, you know the rest. What most people do, is hope for the best and sign. However, that can lead to trouble, advises Delco Times in the article “Planning Ahead: Moving to a care community? Read the agreement.”

If you don’t want to read the fine print or can’t make head or tails of what you are reading, one option is to ask your estate planning attorney to do so. Without someone reading through and understanding the contract, you and your family may be in for some unpleasant surprises. Here are some things to consider.

What kind of a community are you moving into? If you are moving to a Continuing Care or Assisted Living Community, your documents will probably have provisions regarding health insurance, entry fees, deposits, a schedule of costs, if you need additional services, fees for moving to a higher level of care and provisions for refunds and estate planning.

When you enter an long-term care facility, nursing home, or Assisted Living facility, you may find yourself signing documents regarding everything from laundry policies, pharmacy choices, financial disclosures and statements of your rights as a resident. Not every document you sign will be critical, but you should understand everything you sign.

If moving into a nursing home that accepts Medicaid, you and your family need to know that nursing homes that accept Medicaid are not permitted to demand payment on admission from either an adult child or a power of attorney from their own funds. However, Pennsylvania does have support provisions regarding children, that are called “filial responsibility.” This should not be a problem, as long as you speak with an elder law attorney who can make sure you have completed the Medicaid application correctly and are in full compliance with all of the requirements.

If your adult children ask you to sign documents and “don’t worry” about what documents are, you may want to sit down with an experienced elder law attorney to review the documents. When someone is not trained to review these documents, they won’t know what red flags to look for.

If someone signs the document who is not the applicant/future resident, that person may become responsible for the costs, depending upon what role you have when you sign: are you a guarantor or indemnitor? That person typically agrees to pay after the applicant/resident’s funds are exhausted. The payments may have to come from their own funds. Sometimes the “responsible party” is simply the person who handles business matters on the applicant’s behalf. You’ll want to be sure that the person signing the papers understands what they are agreeing to.

Almost all agreements will say that the applicant, or the person receiving services, is responsible for payment from their own assets. However, if someone signing the documents is power of attorney, they need to be mindful of what they are signing up for.

If possible, the person who will receive services should be the one who signs any paperwork, but only after a thorough review from an experienced attorney.

Reference: Delco Times (Feb. 5, 20-19) “Planning Ahead: Moving to a care community? Read the agreement”

How Do I Prepare my Parents for Alzheimer’s?
Concerned aged mother and adult daughter discuss updating their estate planning documents and explore their options with regards to Alzheimer's

How Do I Prepare my Parents for Alzheimer’s?

Can your mom just sell her house, despite her diagnosis of Alzheimer’s?

The (Bryan TX) Eagle reports in the recent article “MENTAL CLARITY: Shining a light on the capacity to sign Texas documents” that the concept of “mental capacity” is complicated. There’s considerable confusion about incapacity. The article explains that different legal documents have a different degree of required capacity. The bar for signing a Power of Attorney, a Warranty Deed, a Contract, a Divorce Decree, or a Settlement Agreement is a little lower than for signing a Will. The individual signing legal documents must be capable of understanding and appreciating what he or she is signing, as well as the effect of the document.

The answer the question of whether the mom can sign the deed to her house over to the buyer.  is likely “yes.” She must understand that she’s selling her house, and that, once the document is signed, the house will belong to someone else. A terminal diagnosis or a neurodegenerative disease doesn’t automatically mean that an individual can’t sign legal documents. A case-by-case assessment is required to see if the document will be valid.

The fact that a person is unable to write his or her name doesn’t mean they lack capacity. If a senior can’t sign her name (possibly due to tremors or neurodegeneration), she can sign with an “X”. She could place her hand on top of someone else’s and allow the other person to sign her name. If this is completed before witnesses and the notary, that would be legal.

A hard part of Alzheimer’s is that a person’s mental clarity can come and go. Capacity can be fluid in the progress of a neurodegenerative or other terminal disease. Because of this, the best time to sign critical documents is sooner rather than later. No one can say the “window of capacity” will remain open for a certain amount of time.

Some signs should prompt you to move more quickly. These include things like the following:

  • Short-term memory loss;
  • Personality changes (e.g., unusual anger);
  • Confusing up or forgetting common-usage words and names; and
  • Disorientation and changes in depth perception.

Any of the signs above could be caused by Alzheimer’s, dementia, or many other problems. Talk to your, or your parent’s, physician and an elder law attorney. He or she can discuss the options, document your parent’s legal capacity, and get the right documents drafted quickly. Your elder law attorney can also give you information about planning for long term care options to consider and can help you understand the costs associated with long term care. 

Here’s Why You Need an Estate Plan in 2019

The New Year sees young adult clients calling estate planning attorney’s offices. They are ready to get their estate plans done because this year they are going to take care of their adult responsibilities. That’s from the article “Estate Planning Resolutions for 2019: How To Be A Grown-Up in The New Year” in Above The Law. It’s a good thing, especially for parents with small children. Here’s a look at what every adult should address in the New Year:

Last Will and Testament: Talk with a local attorney about distributing your assets and the guardianship of your young children. If you’re over age 18, you need a will. If you die without one, the laws in your state will determine what happens to your assets, and a judge, who has never met you or your children, will decide who gets custody. Having a last will and testament prevents a lot of problems, including costs, for those you love.

Power of Attorney. This is the document used to name a trusted person to make financial decisions if something should happen and you are unable to act on your own behalf. It could include the ability to handle your banking, file taxes and even buy and sell real estate.

Health Care Proxy. Having a health care agent named through this document gives another person the power to make decisions about your care. Make sure the person you name knows your wishes. Do you want to be kept alive at all costs, or do you want to be unplugged? Having these conversations is not pleasant, but important.

Life Insurance. Here’s when you know you’ve really become an adult. If you pass away, your family will have the proceeds to pay bills, including making mortgage payments. Make sure you have the correct insurance in place and make sure it’s enough.

Beneficiary Designations. Ask your employer for copies of your beneficiary designations for retirement accounts. If you have any other accounts with beneficiary designations, like investment accounts and life insurance policies, review the documents. Make sure a person and a secondary or successor person has been named. These designated people will receive the assets. Whatever you put in your will about these documents will not matter.

Long-Term Care and Disability Insurance. You may have these policies in place through your employer, but are they enough? Review the policies to make sure there’s enough coverage, and if there is not, consider purchasing private policies to supplement the employment benefits package.

Talk with your parents and grandparents about their estate plans. Almost everyone goes through this period of role reversal, when the child takes the lead and becomes the responsible party. Do they have an estate plan, and where are the documents located? If they have done no planning, including planning for Medicaid, now would be a good time.

Burial Plans. This may sound grim, but if you can let your loved ones know what you want in the way of a funeral, burial, memorial service, etc., you are eliminating considerable stress for them. You might want to purchase a small life insurance policy, just to pay for the cost of your burial. For your parents and grandparents, find out what their wishes are, and if they have made any plans or purchases.

Inventory Possessions. What do you own? That includes financial accounts, jewelry, artwork, real estate, retirement accounts and may include boats, collectible cars or other assets. If there are any questions about the title or ownership of your property, resolve to address it while you are living and not leave it behind for your heirs. If you’ve got any unfinished business, such as a pending divorce or lawsuit, this would be a good year to wrap it up.

The overall goal of these tasks is to take care of your personal business. Therefore, should something happen to you, your heirs are not left to clean up the mess. Talk with an estate planning attorney about having a will, power of attorney and health care proxy created. They can help with the other items as well.

Reference: Above The Law (Jan. 8, 2019) “Estate Planning Resolutions for 2019: How To Be A Grown-Up in The New Year”