Will Helps Avoid Problems and Expenses for Family

Having a will and an estate plan makes passing along assets much easier for the family. Having necessary documents like a power of attorney and a health care power of attorney lets the family make decisions for a loved one, who has become incapacitated. These are estate planning basics, as reported by WKBN 27 in the article “Attorney recommends everyone have a will in place to prevent avoidable issues.”

Think of the will as a way to speak for yourself, when you have passed away. It’s the instructions for what you want to happen to your property, when you die. If there’s a will, the executor is responsible for carrying out your requests. With no will, a court will have to make these decisions.

Many people believe that if they don’t have a will, their spouse will simply inherit everything, automatically. This is not true. There are some states where the surviving spouse receives 50% of a decedent’s assets and the children receive the rest. However, the children could be offspring from outside the marriage. Not having a will, makes your estate and your family vulnerable to unexpected claims.

A will must contain certain elements, which are determined by your state’s laws and must be signed in the presence of two witnesses. Without the correct formalities, the will could be deemed invalid.

Lawyers recommend that everyone have a will and an estate plan, regardless of the size of your estate.

Young parents, in particular, need to have a will, so they can name a person to be guardian of their child or children, if they should both die.

Details matter. In some states, if you make a list and neglect to name specifically who gets what, using the term “children” instead of someone’s name, your stepchildren may not be included. State laws vary, so a local estate planning attorney is your best resource.

You should also be sure to talk with your spouse and your children about what your intentions are, before putting your wishes in writing. You may not feel totally comfortable having the discussion. However, if your intention is to preserve the family, especially if it is a blended family, then everyone should have a chance to learn what to expect.

Wills do become binding, but they are not a one-time event. Just as your life changes, your estate plan and your will should change.

Don’t neglect to update your beneficiary designations. Those are the people you named to receive retirement accounts, bank accounts or other assets that can be transferred by beneficiary designations. The instructions in your will do not control the beneficiary designation. This is a big mistake that many people make. If your will says your current spouse should receive the balance of your IRA when you die but your IRA lists your first wife, your ex will receive everything.

Here are the four estate planning documents needed:

  • A will;
  • A living will, if you need to be placed on life support and decisions need to be made;
  • A healthcare power of attorney, if you cannot speak for yourself, when it comes to medical decisions;
  • A durable power of attorney to make financial decisions, if you are incapacitated.

A local estate planning attorney can help you create all of these documents and will also help you clarify your wishes. If you have an estate plan but have not reviewed it in years, you’ll want to do that soon. Laws and lives change, and you may need to make some changes.

Reference: WKBN 27 (March 14, 2019) “Attorney recommends everyone have a will in place to prevent avoidable issues.”

Wills v. Trusts: What’s Right for You?

It’s a good idea to take the time and make the effort to create an estate plan to take care of your estate — no matter if it’s a condo apartment and a housecat or a big house and lots of money in the bank — just in case something unexpected occurs tomorrow. That’s the advice from AZ Big Media in the article “The pros and cons of wills vs. trusts.”

Estate planning is the area of the law that focuses on the disposition of assets and expenses, when a person dies. The goal is to take care of the “business side” of life while you are living, so your family and loved ones don’t have to pick up the pieces after you are gone. It’s much more expensive, time-consuming and stressful for the survivors to do this after death, than it is if you plan in advance.

You have likely heard the words “trust” and “will” as part of estate planning. What are the differences between the two, and how do you know which one you need?

A will is the most commonly used legal document for leaving instructions about your property after you die. It is also used to name an executor — the person who will be in charge of your assets, their distribution, paying taxes and any estate expenses after you die. The will is very important, if you have minor children. This is how you will name guardians to raise your children, if something unexpected occurs to you and your partner, spouse or co-parent. The will is also the document you use to name the person who you would like to care for your pets, if you have any.

Burial instructions are not included in wills, since the will is not usually read for weeks or sometimes months after a person passes. It’s also not the right way to distribute funds that have been taken care of through the use of beneficiary designations or joint ownership on accounts or assets.

Another document used in estate planning is a trust. There are many different types of trusts, from revocable trusts, which you control as long as you are alive, and irrevocable trusts, which are controlled by trustees. There are too many to name in one article, but if there is something that needs to be accomplished in an estate plan, there’s a good chance there is a special trust designed to do it. An estate planning attorney will be able to tell you if you need a trust, and what purpose it will serve.

Trusts can be used by anyone with assets or property.

A will can be a very simple document. It requires proper formats and formalities to ensure that it is valid. If you try to do this on your own, your heirs will be the ones to find out if you have done it properly.  If it is not done correctly, the court will deem it invalid and your estate will be “intestate,” that is, without a will.

Many people believe that they should put all their assets into a trust to avoid probate. In some cases, this may be useful. However, there are many states where probate is not an onerous process, and this is not the reason for setting up trusts.

A trust won’t eliminate taxes completely, nor will it eliminate the need for any estate administration. However, it may make passing certain assets to another person or another generation easier. Your estate planning attorney will be able to guide you through this process.

Whether you use a will or a trust, or as is most common, a combination of the two, you need an estate plan that includes other documents, including power of attorney and health care power of attorney. These two particular documents are used while you are living, so that someone you name can make financial decisions (power of attorney) and medical health decisions (health care power of attorney) if you should become incapacitated, through illness or injury.

Speak with an estate planning attorney. Every person’s situation is a little different, and an estate planning attorney will create an estate plan that works for you and protects your family.

Reference: AZ Big Media (March 21, 2019) “The pros and cons of wills vs. trusts”

More Reasons Why You Need a Will

It doesn’t take very long for any newly-minted attorneys in the trusts and estates practice area to see what happens when there is no will, says the Daily Memphian in a to-the-point article titled “Five reasons you need a will (and one reason you don’t).” The stress on families, unnecessary expenses and assets going to the wrong people, can easily be prevented with an estate plan and a will. However, in case you still aren’t convinced, here are the top five reasons:

You have a family. For those who are married with children, the laws of intestacy take over, if you don’t have a will. Assets are divided between the surviving spouse and the children in most states (check with a local estate planning attorney for your state’s laws). In theory, that sounds fine. But there are three situations where not having a will can make a mess of things:

  • Minors and developmentally delayed heirs. Minors and individuals with special needs may not legally contract or represent themselves in court. Therefore, they cannot agree to the disposition of assets. When a minor or individual with special needs inherits assets directly, the court must appoint a neutral person, often an attorney, to oversee that person’s best interests. It may also require the appointment of a guardian, so the court can monitor the use of the assets in the child’s best interest, until they are of age.
  • Bad relationships between surviving spouse and children. Under intestate law, the spouse inheriting reduces the amount the children inherit. If the spouse is a second wife, this can make a bad situation worse. A will can plan out the distribution of assets to care for the spouse and ensure that the children receive the assets, as determined by their parent.
  • Extramarital children. Children who are not born to legally wed parents have the right to inherit, regardless of whether their parents were married. What if an unknown offspring shows up and demands his share? This does happen.

You hate your next-of-kin. Not every family is as happy as their Facebook photos. If you don’t want your lawful next of kin inheriting your assets, you need a will. Remember that as time passes and people enter and exit the family, through birth, death, marriage and divorce, the person who is your next-of-kin will likely change over time.

Do you want to give specific gifts? Under the intestacy laws, your relatives (next-of-kin) inherit your property in percentages that are based on their degree of relationship to you and the number of other relatives at that same degree. Outside of designating a beneficiary or joint owner of an assets, having a will that is properly prepared under the laws of your state, is the only way to ensure that you can determine who gets what.

You know how you want things to work after you die. If you want to have any control over what happens to your assets, how you want your funeral to be paid for, what you want to happen to personal property, etc., a will may be the best way to do this. The person named to be your executor is legally responsible to carrying out your wishes, unless it’s impossible, impractical or illegal for them to do so.

You have a living trust. If you took the trouble to have a living trust, then you should also have a will. You need, specifically, a “pour-over” will. This ensures that any assets not titled in the name of the trust at the time of your death, are transferred into the trust. Otherwise, your non-trust assets are subject to intestacy law.

The ONLY reason you may not need a will? If every single asset you own has either joint ownership or beneficiary designations. That’s very unusual, in part because it takes a lot of detail to make sure that every asset is titled correctly. You can leave real property to another person through a joint ownership deed, which establishes that person as the co-owner of the property. Accounts can be left to a person of choice, by naming a person as beneficiary.

Joint ownership and beneficiary designations do supersede the intestacy laws. However, what happens if a beneficiary dies before you do and you neglect to change the name on the asset? There are also gift and tax implications.

A will can be as complex or as simple as you want. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney, who can make sure that your will and any other documents are prepared to achieve your wishes for your estate, protect your family, and don’t leave anything to chance.

Reference: Daily Memphian (March 8, 2019) “Five reasons you need a will (and one reason you don’t)”

Are You Retiring in 2019? Here’s What You Need to Know

There are more than few steps you’ll need to complete, before packing up your desk, cubicle or locker and saying good bye to your work family. Even if your 401(k) and IRA is in order, there are things you need to during the last few months of working, says Next Avenue in the article “Tips to Prepare for Retiring This Spring or Summer.”

There’s detailed planning, organization of documents, and additional financial details that need attending. You may also want to start creating your “bucket list” — a list of things you’ve always wanted to do, but never had the time to do while you were working. Getting all of this in order, will speed your waiting time and prepare you better, when the last day of your working life does finally arrive.

Whether you are three months or six months from retirement, here are some tips for your to-do list:

Social Security. Figure out when the best time for you to take Social Security benefits will be. Can you delay it until age 70? That’s when you’ll get the biggest payout. The earlier you start collecting benefits, the smaller your monthly check will be. Take it early, and you are locked in to this lower rate.

Health Care. Figuring out how to manage health care costs, is the single biggest worry of retirement for most Americans. An injury that puts you in a nursing care facility can make a huge dent in your retirement funds, even if it’s just for a short while. This is the time of your life, when focusing on your health is most important, even if you’ve been careless in earlier decades. Evaluate your health status and get check ups with your regular physician and your dentist.

Investments. Check with your HR department about when you’ll need to roll over your 401(k) plan. If you transfer the funds into a low-cost IRA, you may save in fees. Work with your financial advisor to determine what your withdrawal rate will be. You may need to reevaluate some of your retirement goals or consider working part time during retirement for a few years.

Medicare. If you’re almost 65, you can start enrolling in Medicare now. The government lets you start the process within three months of your 65th birthday. Start this process, so you are covered, once you are not on the company’s health care plan.

Expectations. The first six months to a year of retirement can be both wonderful and terrible. While enjoying freedom, many people find it hard to withdraw money from the same accounts they spent so many years building. What if they don’t have enough for a long life? Take a realistic look at your lifestyle, budget, and spending habits, before you retire to make sure you are financially ready to do so. If you think you might work part time, look into the positions that are available in your area and what they pay.

Lifestyle. Often, we are so busy planning for the financial side of retirement, that we forget to plan for the “soft” side: what will you do in retirement? Will you volunteer with an organization that has meaning for you? Write the novel you’ve started on a dozen times? Spend more time with your grandchildren? Travel? What will make you feel like your time is being well-spent, and what will make you fulfilled?

Don’t forget the legal plan. Retired or not, you need to have a will, power of attorney, and health care power of attorney to protect your family, whether you are preparing for retirement or in the middle of your career. Speak with an estate planning attorney to ensure that these important documents are in place.

Reference: Next Avenue (March 6, 2019) “Tips to Prepare for Retiring This Spring or Summer”

Plan Before a Health Crisis Strikes

A woman wakes up to hear her husband gasping for breath, unresponsive and in full cardiac arrest. He was only 55, he biked 25 to 50 miles every day, he ate right and was one of the healthiest people she knew. Yet, he was having a heart attack. He did not have a health care directive in place, and she did not know what his wishes were in the case of a health crisis.

The story, as related in “START WITH A PLAN (not a heart attack)” from OakPark.com, is not as unusual as one would think. What does make it unusual, was that both of these individuals are attorneys. They had never had an estate plan created or drafted documents.

As the woman sat by his hospital bed in the critical care unit after his surgery, she started thinking about the practical realities. If he remained unconscious for some time, how would she access his individual finances, his paycheck or pay the monthly bills? She would need to hire an attorney and seek guardianship from the court to handle his financial affairs. If he died, she’d have to hire an attorney and open a probate case.

Without a will in place, her husband’s estate would be deemed intestate, and the laws of the state, in her case, Illinois, would be applied to distribute his property. Half of his property would be distributed to his children and the other half to her.

That might mean she would have to borrow money from her own children to pay bills and cover their college tuition.

Her husband responded well to the surgery, but at one point he needed to be transferred to another hospital. As they travelled by ambulance to another hospital, a terrible thought occurred to her: what if the ambulance were in an accident and they were both killed? Who would rear their children? How long would it take to settle the estate, with no will?

Thankfully, the ambulance arrived safely at the hospital, her husband recovered from his heart attack and the first thing they attended to when he recovered was their estate plan.

It’s a dramatic story, but a telling one: everyone, no matter how healthy, needs to have an estate plan in place. That means a will, power of attorney, healthcare proxy, HIPAA release form and any other planning tools that each family’s situation may need.

Make an appointment to meet with an estate planning attorney to put your plan in place. Don’t wait until you have time, because you never know when you may run out of time or when a health crisis may strike.

Reference: Oak Park.com (Feb. 27, 2019) “START WITH A PLAN (not a heart attack)”

Photo Credit: 123rf.com-42402908

Iconic Designer Leaves a Fortune for Beloved Cat

The Burmese cat owned by Lagerfeld stands to inherit a sizable amount of the designer’s fortune, estimated at some $300 million, according to a report from CBS News titled “Karl Lagerfeld’s cat to inherit a fortune, but may not be richest pet.” The cat, named Choupette, was written into his will in 2015, according to the French newspaper Le Figaro.

Before Lagerfeld died on Feb. 19, the cat already had an income of her own, appearing in ads for cars and beauty products. She has nearly 250,000 followers on Instagram and is an ambassador for Opel, the French car maker. She is also the subject of two books. Choupette has had her own line of makeup for the beauty brand Shu Uemura.

Lagerfeld was a German citizen, but he and Choupette were residents of France, where the law prohibits pets from inheriting their human owner’s wealth. German law does permit a person’s wealth to be transferred to an animal.

There are three approaches that Lagerfeld might have taken to ensure that his beloved cat would be assured of her lifestyle, after his passing. One would have been to create a foundation, whose sole mission is to care for the cat, with a director who would receive funds for Choupette’s care.

A second way would be to donate money to an existing nonprofit and stipulate that funds be used for the cat’s care. A third would be to leave the cat to a trusted individual, with a gift of cash that was earmarked for her care.

It is not uncommon today for people to have pet trusts created to ensure that their furry friends enjoy a comfortable lifestyle, after their humans have passed. Estate laws in the U.S. vary by state, but they always require that a human have oversight over any funds or assets entrusted to a pet. Courts also have a say in this. There are reasonable limits on what a person can leave to a pet. A court may not honor a will that seeks to leave millions for the care of a pet. However, it has happened before.

Real estate tycoon Leona Hemsley left many people stunned, when she left $12 million for her Maltese dog. In 1991, German countess Carlotta Liebenstein left her dog Gunther IV a princely sum of $80 million. To date, Gunther remains number one on the “Top Richest Pets” list.

For pets who are beloved parts of regular families and not millionaires in their own right, an estate planning attorney will be able to help you plan for your pet’s well-being, if it should outlive you. Some states permit the use of a pet trust, and a no-kill shelter may have a plan for lifetime care for your pet. You’ll need to make a plan for a secure place for your pet and provide necessary funds for food, shelter, and medical care.

Reference: CBS News (Feb. 21, 2019) “Karl Lagerfeld’s cat to inherit a fortune, but may not be richest pet”

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’”