Estate Planning Basics for Difficult Times

Most people who contract COVID-19 experience mild symptoms, but it does not hurt to be prepared just in case you need to be hospitalized, explains the article “A Guide to Estate Planning During the Coronavirus Pandemic” from HuffPost.com. It is scary to think about being so sick that you aren’t able to make decisions for yourself. However, that’s the point of an estate plan: to ease your fears. You’ll feel better knowing you’ve made health and financial decisions in advance and your loved ones won’t have to guess about your wishes.

Even without a global pandemic, everyone should have an estate plan. If you don’t have one, now is the time to get it done, even if you are single and have limited wealth. An estate plan includes documents like a revocable trust, financial powers of attorney (FPOA), health care powers of attorney (HCPOA) and more.

Right now, the medical and financial powers of attorney are on everyone’s mind. These two documents allow a person you name to do your banking, pay your bills and make medical decisions, if you are quarantined at home, admitted to the hospital, or become incapacitated. If you don’t have a financial power of attorney, a family member will need to request the probate court to appoint a guardian. This will be expensive and time-consuming. The same goes for the health care power of attorney. If a decision needs to be made in an emergency situation, the family will not have the ability to enforce your wishes.

A living will, known in some states as an advance health care directive, lets you be specific about what end-of-life treatment you do or do not want to receive, if you become terminally ill or permanently unconscious. Without a living will, the decision to remove life support must be made by loved ones, without knowing what you want.

A HIPAA waiver permits your loved ones to access medical information. Even when there is a health care power of attorney, there are some institutions that will refuse access to medical information without a standalone HIPAA waiver.

The last will and testament is the legal document that is used to direct distribution of property at the time of death, appoint an executor who will oversee the distribution of assets, and, if you have minor children, name a guardian for them. Without a last will, the court will rely on state laws to determine who inherits your property and who will raise your children.

A living trust is a legal contract that creates an entity to hold your assets. If it is a revocable trust, you control it and you can make changes to it anytime you wish. If you become incapacitated or unable to manage your estate, the living trust avoids the need for a court-appointed conservatorship. When you create the living trust, you appoint a successor trustee who will step in when you are unable to manage your affairs. The living trust creates privacy, since the assets in the trust do not go through probate, which is a public process.

Once you have an estate plan, make sure that the documents are safe and the right people can access them. Some estate planning attorneys store documents for their clients. Copies of relevant documents should be given to your treating physician, financial advisor, family members and any trustees or agents. Keep high quality scanned copies on your computer, and label them, so that they can be identified. Don’t name them “Scan1” and “Scan2.” Label them accurately and include the date the documents were signed.

Speak with your estate planning attorney to ensure that you have all of the necessary documents to protect yourself, your loved ones and your property.

Reference: HuffPost.com (April 7, 2020) “A Guide to Estate Planning During the Coronavirus Pandemic”

Selling a Parent’s Home after They Pass

Family members who are overtaken with grief are often unable to move forward and make decisions. If a house was not being well maintained while the parent was ill or aging, it might fall into further disrepair. When siblings have emotional attachments to the family home, says the article “With proper planning, selling a parent’s house can be a relatively painless process,” from The Washington Post, things can get even more complicated.

The difficulty of selling a parent’s home after their passing, depends to a large degree on what kind of advance planning has taken place. Much also depends on the heir’s ability to ask for help and working with the right professionals in handling the sale of the home and managing the estate. The earlier the process begins, the better.

Parents can take steps while they are still living to ward off unnecessary complications. It may be a difficult conversation but having it will make the process easier and allow the family time to focus on their emotions, rather than the sale of property. Here are a few pointers:

Make sure your parents have a will. Many Americans do not. A survey from Caring.com found that only 42% of American adults had a will and other estate planning documents.

Be prepared to spend some money. Before a home is sold, there may be costs associated with maintaining the property and fixing any overdue repairs. Save all receipts and estimates.

Secure the property immediately. That may mean having the locks changed as soon as possible. Once an heir (or someone who believes they are or should be an heir) moves in, getting them out adds another layer of complications.

Get real about the value of the property. Have a real estate agent run a competitive market analysis on the property and consider an appraisal from a licensed appraisal. Avoid any accusations of impropriety—don’t hire a friend or family member. This needs to be all business.

Designate a contact person, usually the executor, to keep the heirs updated on how the sale of the house is progressing.

The biggest roadblock to selling the family house is often the emotional attachment of the children. It’s hard to clean out a family home, with all of the mementos, large and small. The longer the process takes, the harder it is.

This is not the time for any major renovations. There may be some cosmetic repairs that will make the house more marketable, but substantial improvements won’t impact the sale price. Remove all family belongings and show the house either empty or with professional staging to show its possibilities. Clean carpets, paint, if needed and have the landscaping cleaned up.

Keep tax consequences in mind. Depending on where the property is, where the heirs live and how much money is being inherited, there can be estate, inheritance and income taxes.  It is usually best to sell an inherited property, as soon as the rights to it are received. When a property is inherited at death, the property value is “stepped up” to fair market value at the time of the owner’s death. That means that you can sell a property that was purchased in 1970 but not pay taxes on the value gained over those years.

Talk with an experienced estate planning attorney about what will happen when the home needs to be sold. It may be better for parents to create a revocable trust in advance, which will direct the sale, allow a child to continue living in the home for a certain period of time, or instruct the one child who loves the home so much to buy it from the trust. Trusts are typically easier to administer after parents pass away and can be very helpful in preventing family fights.

Reference: The Washington Post (May 16, 2019) “With proper planning, selling a parent’s house can be a relatively painless process”