What can a Power of Attorney Do—or Not Do?

Power of attorney is an important tool in estate planning. The recent article “Top Ten Facts About Powers of Attorney” from My Prime Time News, explains how a POA works, what it can and cannot do and how it helps families with loved ones who are incapacitated.

The agent’s authority to powers of attorney (POA) is only effective while the person is living. It ends upon the death of the principal. At that point in time, the executor named in the last will or an administrator named by a court are the only persons legally permitted to act on behalf of the decent.

An incapacitated person may not sign a POA.

Powers of Attorney can be broad or narrow. A person may be granted POA to manage a single transaction, for example, the sale of a home. They may also be named POA to handle all of a person’s financial and legal affairs. In some states, such as Colorado, general language in a POA may not be enough to authorize certain transactions. A POA should be created with an estate planning attorney as part of a strategic plan to manage the principal’s assets. A generic POA could create more problems than it solves.

You can have more than one agent to serve under your POA. If you prefer that two people serve as POA, the POA documents will need to state that requirement.

Banks and financial institutions have not always been compliant with POAs. In some cases, they insist that only their POA forms may be used. This has created problems for many families over the years, when POAs were not created in a timely fashion.

In 2010, Colorado law set penalties for third parties (banks, etc.) that refused to honor current POAs without reasonable cause. A similar law was passed in New York State in 2009. Rules and requirements are different from state to state, so speak with a local estate planning attorney to ensure that your POA is valid.

Your POA is effective immediately, once it is executed. A Springing POA becomes effective when the conditions specified in the POA are met. This often includes having a treating physician sign a document attesting to your being incapacitated. An estate planning attorney will be able to create a POA that best suits your situation.

If you anticipate needing a trust in the future, you may grant your agent the ability to create a trust in your POA. The language must align with your state’s laws to achieve this.

Your agent is charged with reporting any financial abuse and taking appropriate action to safeguard your best interests. If your agent fails to notify you of abuse or take actions to stop the abuser, they may be liable for reasonably foreseeable damages that could have been avoided.

The agent must never use your property to benefit himself, unless given authority to do so. This gets sticky, if you own property together. You may need additional documents to ensure that the proper authority is granted, if your POA and you are in business together, for example.

Every situation is different, and every state’s laws and requirements are different. It will be worthwhile to meet with an estate planning attorney to ensure that the documents created will be valid and to perform as desired.

Reference: My Prime-Time News (April 10, 2021) “Top Ten Facts About Powers of Attorney”

How to Manage a Will and Trust
Estate Plan, Living Will, and Healthcare Power of Attorney documents

How to Manage a Will and Trust

A last will and testament is used to point out the beneficiaries and trustees and the legal professionals you want to be involved with your estate when you have passed, explains this recent article What You Need To Know About Handling a Will and Trust from Your Dearly Departed Loved One” from North Forty News. If there are minor children in the picture, the last will is used to direct who will be their guardians.

A trust is different than the last will. A trust is a legal entity where one person places assets in the trust and names a trustee to be in charge of the assets in the trust on behalf of the beneficiaries. The assets are legally protected and must be distributed as per the instructions in the trust document. Trusts are a good way to reduce paperwork, save time and reduce estate taxes.

Don’t go it alone. If your loved one had a last will and trust, chances are they were prepared by an estate planning lawyer. The estate planning attorney can help you go through the legal process. The attorney also knows how to prepare for any possible disputes from relatives.

It may be more complicated than you expect. There are times when honoring the wishes of the deceased about how their property is distributed becomes difficult. Sometimes, there are issues between the beneficiaries and the last will and trust custodians. If you locate the attorney who was present at the time the last will was signed and the trusts created, she may be able to make the process easier.

Be prepared to get organized. There’s usually a lot of paperwork. First, gather all of the documents—an original last will, the death certificate, life insurance policies, marriage certificates, real estate titles, military discharge papers, divorce papers (if any) and any trust documents. Review the last will and trust with an estate planning attorney to understand what you will need to do.

Protect personal property and assets. Homes, boats, vehicles and other large assets will need to be secured to protect them from theft. Once the funeral has taken place, you’ll need to identify all of the property owned by the deceased and make sure they are property insured and valued. If a home is going to be empty, changing the locks is a reasonable precaution. You don’t know who has keys or feels entitled to its contents.

Distribution of assets. If there is a last will, it must be filed with the probate court and all beneficiaries—everyone mentioned in the last will has to be notified of the decedent’s passing. As the executor, you are responsible for ensuring that every person gets what they have been assigned. You will need to prepare a document that accounts for the distribution of all properties, which the court has to certify before the estate can be closed.

Taking on the responsibility of finalizing a person’s estate is not without challenges. An estate planning attorney can help you through the process, making sure you are managing all the details according to the last will and the state’s laws. There may be personal liability attached to serving as the executor, so you’ll want to make sure to have good guidance on your side.

Reference: North Forty News (Feb. 3, 2021) What You Need To Know About Handling a Will and Trust from Your Dearly Departed Loved One”

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

Your Estate Planning Checklist for 2021

If you reviewed or created your estate plan in 2020, you are ahead of most Americans, but you’re not done yet. If you created a trust, gave gifts of real estate, business interest or other assets, you need to address the loose ends and do the follow up work to ensure that your planning goals will be met. That’s the advice from a recent article “Checklist 2020 Planning Follow Through: You Have More Work To Do” from Forbes.

Here are few to consider:

Did you loan money to heirs? If you made any loans to heirs or had any other loan transactions, you’ll need to calendar the interest payment dates and amounts and be sure that interest is paid promptly as described in the promissory notes. Correct interest payments are necessary for the IRS or creditors to treat the transaction as a real loan, otherwise you risk having the loan recharacterized or worse, being disregarded completely.

Did you create an irrevocable trust? If so, you need to be sure that gifts are made to the trust each year to fund insurance premiums. If the trust includes annual demand powers (known as “Crummey powers”) to allow gifts to qualify for the gift tax annual exclusion, written notices for 2020 gifts will need to be issued. This can be way more complicated than you expect: if you have transfers made to multiple trusts and outright gifts made directly to heirs, those gifts may need to be prioritized, based on the terms of the trusts and the dates of the gifts to determine which gifts qualify for the annual exclusion and which do not.

If you made gifts to a trust that is exempt from the generation skipping transfer tax (GST), you may have to file a gift tax return to allocate the GST exemption, so the trust remains GST exempt. Talk to your estate planning attorney to avoid any expensive mistakes.

Do you own life insurance? Or does a trust own life insurance for you? Either way, do not ignore your coverage after you’ve purchased a policy or policies. Your broker should review policy performance, the appropriateness of coverage for your plan, etc., every few years. If you didn’t do this in 2020, make it a priority for 2021. Many people create SLATS—Spousal Lifetime Access Trusts—so that their spouse benefits from the trusts. However, if your spouse dies prematurely, the SLAT no longer works.

Paying trustee fees. If you have institutional trustees, their fees need to be paid annually. If you pay the fees directly, the fee becomes an additional gift to the trust, requiring the filing of a gift tax for that year. If the trust pays the fee directly, there might not be a tax implication. Again, check with your estate planning attorney.

Did you make transfers to a trust with a disclaimer mechanism? If you made transfers to a trust that has a disclaimer mechanism and you want to reconsider the planning, it may be possible for beneficiaries or a trustee to disclaim gifts made to the trust within nine months of the transfer, thereby unwinding the planning.

Did you create any GRATs in 2020? If you created a Grantor Retained Annuity Trust, be certain that the trustee calendars the required annuity payments and that they are paid on a timely basis. Missing payments could put the GRAT status in jeopardy. You should also confirm also how the payment is calculated, which should be in the GRAT itself.

The best estate plan is one that is reviewed on a regular basis to ensure that it works, throughout changes that occur in law and life.

Reference: Forbes (Dec. 27, 2020) “Checklist 2020 Planning Follow Through: You Have More Work To Do”

 

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

Is Your Estate Really as Set as You Think?

Next Avenue’s recent article entitled “Is Your Estate as Planned As You Think?” explains that when you pass away your executor will have many tasks to perform when settling your estate.

It’s helpful to add clarity and lessen the burden of that person’s work in advance. Look at this list of things to make sure your estate is as planned as you think it is:

Is your will current? If you’ve written your will, how long has it been since you drafted it? Have there been any major changes in your life since that time? If so, it’s likely time to update it. Review your will to make certain that it’s an accurate representation of your assets and your wishes now.

Is your will detailed? Yes, you’ve addressed the big stuff, but what about smaller items with sentimental value? You should list who gets what, to avoid fighting.

Have you set out your wishes, so they’re legally binding? Each state has different rules as to what is required for a valid will. Work with an experienced estate planning attorney to make sure your will is valid.

Are your financial affairs organized? Your executor will need to know if you have any recurring payments, as well as your account number, and online passwords. Create a list of regular monthly bills, along with your account numbers and access codes to simplify your executor’s job.

You will also need to let the executor know about any automatic deductions or charges on your credit card, internet-based subscriptions, club memberships, recurring charitable donations and automatic utility payments.

Do you have a way to distribute your personal items? You should determine how your family will divide up the possessions not explicitly listed in your will, such as the lawnmower, dishes and photographs. All of it will need to be either distributed to one of your beneficiaries, donated, or sold.

Conducting comprehensive planning of your estate with an attorney can help ensure that there’s less stress and an easy distribution of your assets.

While speaking with your estate planning attorney, ask about appointing a guardian for your minor children in your will, a healthcare directive, a living will, a HIPAA waiver and whether you should have a trust.

Reference: Next Avenue (Feb. 25, 2020) “Is Your Estate as Planned As You Think?”

When Does the Fiduciary Duty Granted by a Power of Attorney Begin?

A recent case examined the issue of when the fiduciary duty begins for an agent who has been given Power of Attorney, as reported by the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin in the article “Presumed power of attorney fraud is main factor in joint-account fight.”

Soon after moving to Illinois from Florida to live with his eldest son, a man and that son opened multiple bank accounts, purchased certificates of deposit (CDs) from a bank where the son’s wife worked and transferred more than $60,000 from two of the man’s Florida bank accounts to Illinois banks. Soon after the man moved, his eldest son deposited more than $300,000 from the sale of his father’s Florida condominium into one of the father’s Illinois bank accounts.

The eldest son then withdrew money from the father’s accounts to pay for home improvement costs and other personal expenses. After the father died, the eldest son’s two brothers sued their older brother, accusing him of initiating numerous transfers of money that were not in their father’s or their best interests, and of exerting undue influence on their father, by convincing him to change his will after he moved in with the oldest brother.

The trial court ordered the older brother to repay more than $900,000 back to the estate, including almost $300,000 in prejudgment interest, and voided the revised estate planning documents that the older brother had his father sign. That included a revised will, trust and power of attorney that favored the older brother.

Once you are appointed as a power of attorney, you become a fiduciary—that’s how most state laws work. That means you must act first in the interest of the person who has appointed you. The law states that an agent owes a fiduciary duty to the principal. Period. Any transactions that favor the agent over the principal (or their estate) are deemed fraudulent, unless the agent is able to disprove the fraud with clear and convincing evidence that his or her actions were undertaken in good faith and did not betray the confidence and trust placed in the agent. If the agent can meet this burden, the challenged transaction may be upheld. But if it doesn’t, then the transaction is not valid.

Some of the facts the court look at when making this determination are: did the fiduciary make a full disclosure to the principal of key information, did the fiduciary pay the fair market value for the transfer and did the principal have competent and independent advice.

In this case, the trial judge found that the multiple transfers into the Illinois banks and the gift of $130,000 from the principal to the oldest brother occurred during the existence of the POA relationship. The oldest brother clearly benefitted from these transfers, which activated the presumption of fraud.

The trial court’s decision was appealed by the older brother, who along with his two younger brothers brought motions for summary judgment, that is, for the appeals court to disregard the decision of the trial court. However, the appeals court agreed with the trial judge that the older brother failed to prove that the transfers were in good faith.

The appeals court makes it clear: the power of attorney fiduciary relationship begins when the power of attorney agent signs the document and the agent has a legal responsibility to put the interests of the principal first.

Reference: Chicago Daily Law Bulletin (April 23, 2020) “Presumed power of attorney fraud is main factor in joint-account fight”

 

Hey Dad, Can I Get an Advance on My Inheritance?

Most parents want to divide their estate equally among their heirs, but sometimes things just don’t work out that way. That’s especially the case when one child needs more help than another. Therefore, what parents will often do is count the distributions they make during their lifetime as advances against the child’s future inheritance. This doesn’t always go smoothly, says the article “Lifetime advances of inheritances” from Lake County News.

Equalizing distributions to some children to offset any substantial distributions made to offset the total distribution can lead to trouble, if certain legal requirements are not addressed. In California, the Probate Code is very specific. There are three different approaches in which lifetime distributions are counted as advances of inheritances at death:

  1. The instrument provides for deduction of the lifetime gift from the at-death transfer
  2. The transferor declares in a contemporaneous writing that the gift is in satisfaction of the at-death transfer or that its value is to be deducted from the value of the at-death transfer and
  3. The transferee acknowledges in writing that the gift is in satisfaction of the at-death transfer or that its value is to be deducted from the value at the at-death transfer.

In the first example, the decedent’s will, or trust expressly says that lifetime distributions are to be counted against the future inheritance. This may state a specific dollar amount or may refer to a ledger that tracks ongoing lifetime gifting. The ledger approach is often used when a child is dependent upon a parent for ongoing support, paying off school loans or paying a mortgage.

The second example, which involves a written record of the gift, was the subject of a recent appellate court decision. The deceased father kept track of all monetary gifts to his children. The father’s bookkeeper maintained a spreadsheet and was told by the father that the list was important, so that the payments would be deducted from inheritances. At the father’s death, the son had received more than $450,000 more than the daughter. The son contested the daughter’s request for equalizing the inheritance based on the ledger. The appellate court stated that the ledger met the requirements to serve as a contemporaneous written record. The court also found that the permanent ledger was property authenticated and entered into evidence, based on the daughter’s testimony that she found the ledger among her father’s papers and that it was written in her father’s handwriting.

In the third scenario, where there was a written acknowledgment by the person receiving the “advance” that the money was in satisfaction of the at-death transfer, the court found that the requirement was satisfied and the son had acknowledged that the assets given to him were advances on his inheritance.

A better scenario, and one that would have prevented some, if not all, of the litigation described above, would be to have estate planning documents that clearly state whether any disproportionate lifetime gifting to beneficiaries is to be offset with equalizing payments to the other beneficiaries at death. Your estate planning attorney will be able to create the best plan if your heirs need financial support, following the laws of your state.

Reference: Lake County News (March 14, 2020) “Lifetime advances of inheritances”

Suggested Key Terms: Inheritance, Beneficiaries, Equalizing Payments, Advance Gifting, Permanent Ledger, Decedent, Will, Trust, Estate Planning Attorney, Heirs

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

I’m a Fiduciary—What Does That Mean?

There are any number of pitfalls that may occur when administering an estate, a trust or another person’s finances under a Power of Attorney (POA). Fiduciary duties are the highest under the law, and the fiduciary is legally required to put the interests of the person they are representing above their own. The most common problem for a fiduciary is not taking their responsibilities seriously enough, says the article “What does it mean to serve as a fiduciary? from the New Hampshire Union Leader.

You can avoid some common pitfalls, if you keep the following in mind:

Know the governing instrument. A fiduciary must abide by the terms of the governing instrument, which might be a Power of Attorney (POA), trust, or another legal document. The powers you hold are limited to those granted in the document. There are times when even though you have a power or the ability to do something, it’s not in the best interest of the grantor. Let’s say the trust gives you as a trustee the power to make distributions to a beneficiary. If the beneficiary has sufficient independent resources, doing so might be a breach of your duties. In the same way, the ability to make gifts that is given by a POA, doesn’t mean you should automatically start making gifts.

Maintain extremely detailed records. Do this for two reasons. You have a duty to do so, and you need good records in case anyone claims that you did something wrong. Make sure that your records have enough details so that any expense or expenditure can be documented and explained.

Transparency is the best approach. Every situation is different, and family dynamics differs, but if you can, speak with family members before making any transactions. If they object, you can decide whether or not to proceed, or to petition the probate court to give the court’s blessing in advance. In this case, it is better to ask permission in advance, than ask for forgiveness after the fact.

Never mix your personal or business funds with that of the estate. This is one of the biggest problems for people who have never been a fiduciary before. If you are a fiduciary for more than one estate, then you’ll need to have funds and property completely separate from each other.

Fiduciary duties need to be treated with great care to avoid any liability and litigation. If you are not prepared to be a fiduciary, you could decide to decline the role. Speak with an estate planning attorney, if you have any reservations about taking on this responsibility.

Reference: New Hampshire Union Leader (December 7, 2019) “What does it mean to serve as a fiduciary?