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?

How to Choose an Estate Planning Attorney

Estate planning is a critical part of financial planning, but it is something that many Americans prefer to procrastinate about. However, drafting a will, health care proxy, and power of attorney are too important to leave to chance, says Next Avenue in the article “How to Find a Good Estate Planner.” An experienced estate planning attorney can help prevent critical mistakes and help you adjust your plan as circumstances change.

Here are a few tips:

Look for an estate planning attorney. An attorney who practices real estate law is not going to be up on all of the latest changes to estate and tax laws.

Next, determine if the attorney deals with families who are in similar situations to yours. An attorney who works with family-owned businesses, for instances, will be more helpful in creating an estate plan that includes tax and succession planning.

Experience matters in this area of the law. The laws of your state are just one of the many parts that the attorney needs to know by heart. The estate planning attorney who has been practicing for many years, will have a better sense of how families work, what problems crop up and how to avoid them.

Ask about costs. Don’t be shy. You want to be clear from the start what you should expect to be spending on an estate plan. The attorney should be comfortable having this discussion with you and your spouse or family member. Remember that the attorney will be able to understand the scope of work, only after they speak with you about your situation. What may seem simple to you, may be more complicated than you think.

If a trust is added, the fees are likely to increase. A trust can be used to avoid or minimize estate taxes, avoid probate, save on time and court fees and create conditions for the distribution of assets after you die.

Don’t neglect to have the attorney create a Power of Attorney form and any other advance directives you need. These vary by state, and you don’t want them to get too old, or they may become out of date.

Recognize that this is an ongoing relationship. Make sure that you are comfortable with the attorney, how the practice is run and the people who work there—receptionist, paralegals and other associates at the firm are all people you may be working with at one point or another during the process. You will be sharing very personal information with the entire team, so be sure it’s a good fit.

This is also not a one-and-done event. Having an estate plan is a lot like having a home—it requires maintenance. Every four years or so, or when large events occur in your life, you’ll need to have your will reviewed.

Your estate planning attorney should become a trusted advisor who works hand in hand with your accountant and financial advisor. Together, they should all be looking out for you and your family.

Reference: Next Avenue (September 10, 2019) “How to Find a Good Estate Planner”

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”