Special Needs Guardianship Can Be a Challenge

A person who’s diagnosed with autism should have a named guardian before turning 18. At that point, the person can sign binding contracts, make health care decisions and sign IEPs (Individualized Education Plan) without parental involvement.

Autism Parenting’s recent article entitled “A Brief Overview of Special Needs Guardianship” explains that guardianship is a legal process in which a responsible person is named as the final decision maker for another. When it’s the parent and their child with autism, the parent can become the guardian of the 18-year-old with autism in a specific legal process. Guardianship gives the parent the final say, on all decisions regarding the child.

It’s not uncommon for a parent to be hesitant about becoming the guardian, especially if the child is developing well and has several abilities. One question to ask in this situation concerns the intellectual or developmental age of my child. If the honest answer is below the age 18 (like 14 or 12 years old), then you’ll want to ask yourself if you’d allow your 14-year-old make all healthcare, education, housing and financial decisions and have those decisions be legally binding. Probably not. In that case, you should look into guardianship.

If your adult child continues to develop and at some point down the road can make decisions on her own, the guardian can petition the court to have relationship revoked.

Another important time period that guardianship needs to be considered is when the parents die. The appointed guardian then will be responsible for day-to-day care or decisions on that day to day care. The selection of a guardian for this situation is often a large roadblock to finishing up a family’s plan.

The reason is because parents must make this decision before completing their will. If parents have trouble with choosing a potential guardian, consider these criteria when considering each person: location, family circumstances, their personality qualities and demeanor, their age, their experience with special needs individuals, the fact that the person knows your family member, your parent or your loved one knows the individual, their financial position, marital status and work schedule.

By the following factors, parents can rank each possible future guardian and settle on the best possible choice.

Although the guardian might never be as committed as a parent, if you use a more objective process (like the criteria above), parents will be better able to find a qualified future guardian.

Click here for more information about guardianship and conservatorship.

Reference: Autism Parenting (undated) “A Brief Overview of Special Needs Guardianship”

If I’m 35, Do I Need a Will?

Estate planning is a crucial process for everyone, no matter what assets you have now. If you want your family to be able to deal with your affairs, debts included, drafting an estate plan is critical, says Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “Estate planning for those 40 and under.”

If you have young children, or other dependents, planning is vitally important. The less you have, the more important your plan is, so it can provide as long as possible and in the best way for those most important to you. You can’t afford to make a mistake.

Talk to your family about various “what if” situations. It is important that you’ve discussed your wishes with your family and that you’ve considered the many contingencies that can happen, like a serious illness or injury, incapacity, or death. This also gives you the chance to explain your rationale for making a larger gift to someone, rather than another or an equal division. This can be especially significant, if there’s a second marriage with children from different relationships and a wide range of ages. An open conversation can help avoid hard feelings later.

You should have the basic estate plan components, which include a will, a living will, advance directive, powers of attorney, and a designation of agent to control disposition of remains. These are all important components of an estate plan that should be created at the beginning of the planning process. A guardian should also be named for any minor children.

In addition, a life insurance policy can give your family the needed funds in the event of an untimely death and loss of income—especially for young parents. The loss of one or both spouses’ income can have a drastic impact.

Remember that your estate plan shouldn’t be a “one and done thing.” You need to review your estate plan every few years. This gives you the opportunity to make changes based on significant life events, tax law changes, the addition of more children, or their changing needs. You should also monitor your insurance policies and investments, because they dovetail into your estate plan and can fluctuate based on the economic environment.

When you draft these documents, you should work with a qualified estate planning attorney.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (Jan. 21, 2020) “Estate planning for those 40 and under”

Can I Add an Adult Daughter to the Title of a Home?

It’s surprising that the lender wouldn’t allow this 77-year-old widowed woman to add her daughter to the title of her your home, says The Ledger’s recent article “Leaving your home to a family member? Consider these options.” Typically, the mortgage lender likes to make sure that the borrower on the loan is the same as the owners on the title to the property. However, if a senior wanted to add her daughter, it’s not uncommon for a lender to allow a non-borrower spouse or child to be on the title but not on the loan. When the lender permits this, all the loan documents are signed by the borrower and a few documents would also be signed by the non-borrowing owner of the home.

In this situation where the mother closed on the loan, and the lender refused to put the daughter on the title to the home, there are a few options. One option is to do nothing but be certain sure that there’s a valid will in place with instructions that the home is to go to the daughter. When the mother passes away, the daughter would have to wait while the will is probated, then transfer the title to her name or sell the place. The probate process will increase some costs and can be a little stressful, especially if someone is grieving the loss of a family member.

A second option is for the mother to create a living trust and transfer the title of the home to the trust—she would be the owner and trustee. The mother would name her daughter as the successor beneficiary and trustee of the trust. Upon the mother’s death, the daughter would assume the role of trustee.

The next option is a transfer on death (or “TOD”) instrument. Some real estate professionals don’t like to use this document. It may not be acceptable depending on state law, but the TOD would allow the mother to record a document now that would state that upon her death the home would go to her daughter.

Finally, the mother could transfer ownership of the home to her daughter and herself with a quitclaim deed to hold the home as joint tenants with rights of survivorship. Upon mother’s death, the home would automatically become the daughter’s home. However, this type of transfer of the home might trigger the lender’s “due on sale” requirement in the mortgage. Thus, if the lender wanted to be a stickler, they could argue that the mother violated the terms of that loan and is in default.

It is also worth mentioning that there may be tax consequences for the daughter. If the mother goes with the last option and puts her daughter on the title to the property, she’s in effect gifting her half of the value of the home. This may cause tax issues in the future, because the daughter will forfeit her ability to get a stepped-up basis. However, if the daughter gets title to the home through a will, the living trust or the transfer on death instrument, she’ll inherit the home at the home’s value at or around the time of the mother’s death (the stepped-up basis). You should work with an experienced estate planning attorney to get the best advice.

Reference: The Ledger (Jan. 11, 2020) “Leaving your home to a family member? Consider these options”

Creating an Estate Plan Should Be a New Year’s Resolution

Many people think of estate planning as a way to save on taxes as their hard-earned assets are passed from one generation to the next. That’s certainly a part of estate planning, but there are many other aspects of estate planning that focus on protecting the person and their family. They are detailed in the article “An estate planning checklist should be a top New Year’s resolution” from the Houston Business Journal.

Now is a good time to start the new year off right to put an estate plan in place. For those who have an estate plan, it’s a good time to revisit living documents that need to be updated to reflect changes in a person’s life, family dynamics, changes in exemption limits and the recently passed SECURE Act.

Here are the top four items to make sure that your estate plan is ready for 2020.

Take a look at your financial situation. No matter how modest or massive your assets, just about everyone has an estate that’s worth protecting. Most people have something they want to pass along to their children or grandchildren. An estate plan simply formalizes these wishes and minimizes the chances that the family will fight over how assets are distributed.

Many people meet with their team at least once a year to get a clear picture of their financial status. This allows the estate planning attorney to review any changes that may impact how the estate is structured, including tailoring gifting strategies to reduce the tax burden.

Put your wishes on paper, and your affairs in order. Without a will, there’s no way for anyone to know what your wishes are and how you’d want your assets passed to others. A will spells out who gets what and avoids having the estate administered by state laws. A living will is also needed to establish medical power of attorney and state wishes about life support and what medical care you may or may not want to receive. That can include everything from blood transfusions, palliative care, diagnostic tests or the use of a respirator. A financial POA is needed to give someone the legal authority to make decisions on your behalf, if you become incapacitated.

With these estate planning documents, you relieve family members of the burden of guessing what you might have wanted, especially during emergency situations when emotions are running high.

Asset estate and gift tax exemptions for 2020. The exemption for 2020 has increased to $1.58 million. This eliminates federal estate taxes on amounts under that limit that are gifted to family members during a person’s lifetime or left to them upon a person’s death. This is a significant increase from prior years. In 1997, the exemption was $600,000. It rose to $5.49 million in 2018, and as a result of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, was $11.4 million in 2019.

Understand the “claw back.” The exemption amount will increase every year until 2025. There was some uncertainty about what would happen if someone uses their $11.58 million exemption in 2020 and then dies in 2026, when the number could revert back to the $5 million range. Would the IRS say that the person used more of their exemption than they were entitled to? The agency recently issued final regulations that will protect individuals who take advantage of these exemption limits through 2025. Gifts will be sheltered by the increasing exemption limits when the gifts are actually made.

Continuing changes in the tax laws are examples of why an annual review of an estate plan is necessary. The one thing we can all be certain of is change, and keeping estate plans up to date makes sure that the family benefits from all available changes to the law.

Reference: Houston Business Journal (Jan. 1, 2020) “An estate planning checklist should be a top New Year’s resolution”

 

Mistakes to Avoid when Planning Estates

Because estate planning has plenty of legal jargon, it can make some people think twice about planning their estates, especially people who believe that they have too little property to bother with this important task.

Comstock’s Magazine’s recent article entitled “Five Mistakes to Avoid When Planning Your Estate” warns that without planning, even small estates under a certain dollar amount (which can pass without probate, according the probate laws in some states) may cause headaches for heirs and family members. Here are five mistakes you can avoid with the help of an experienced estate planning attorney:

Getting Bad Advice. If you want to plan an estate, start with a qualified estate planning attorney. There are plenty of other “experts” out there ready to take your money, who don’t know how to apply the law and strategies to your specific situation.

Naming Yourself as a Sole Trustee. You might think that the most trustworthy trustee is yourself, the testator. However, the estate plans can break down, if dementia and Alzheimer’s disease leave a senior susceptible to outside influences. In California, the law requires a certificate of independent review for some changes to trusts, like adding a nurse or an attorney as a beneficiary. However, this also allows family members to take advantage of the situation. It’s wise to designate a co-trustee who must sign off on any changes — like a trusted adult child, financial adviser, or licensed professional trustee, providing an extra layer of oversight.

Misplacing Assets. It’s not uncommon for some assets to be lost in a will or trust. Some assets, such as 401(k) plans, IRAs, and life insurance plans have designated beneficiaries which are outside of a last will and testament or trust document. Stocks and securities accounts may pass differently than other assets, based upon the names on the account. Sometimes people forget to change the beneficiaries on these accounts, like keeping a divorced spouse on a life insurance policy. When updating your will or trust, make certain to also update the beneficiaries of these types of assets.

Committing to a Plan Without Thinking of Others. When it comes to estate planning, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. For example, for entitlement or tax reasons, it may make sense to transfer assets to beneficiaries, while the testator is still living. This might also be a terrible idea, depending on the beneficiaries’ situation and ability to handle a sum of money. He or she may have poor spending habits. Remember that estate planning is a personal process that depends on each family’s assets, needs and values. Work with an experienced estate planning attorney to be sure to consider all the angles.

Reference: Comstock’s Magazine “Five Mistakes to Avoid When Planning Your Estate”

How Can I Upgrade My Estate Plan?

Forbes’ recent article, “4 Ways To Improve Your Estate Plan,” suggests that since most people want to plan for a good life and a good retirement, why not plan for a good end of life, too? Here are four ways you can refine your estate plan, protect your assets and create a degree of control and certainty for your family.

  1. Beneficiary Designations. Many types of accounts go directly to heirs, without going through the probate process. This includes life insurance contracts, 401(k)s and IRAs. These accounts can be transferred through beneficiary designations. You should update and review these forms and designations every few years, especially after major life events like divorce, marriage or the birth or adoption of children or grandchildren.
  2. Life Insurance. A main objective of life insurance is to protect against the loss of income, in the event of an individual’s untimely death. The most important time to have life insurance is while you’re working and supporting a family with your income. Life insurance can provide much needed cash flow and liquidity for estates that might be subject to estate taxes or that have lots of illiquid assets, like family businesses, farms, artwork or collectibles.
  3. Consider a Trust. In some situations, creating a trust to shelter or control assets is a good idea. There are two main types of trusts: revocable and irrevocable. You can fund revocable trusts with assets and still use the assets now, without changing their income tax nature. This can be an effective way to pass on assets outside of probate and allow a trustee to manage assets for their beneficiaries. An irrevocable trust can be a way to provide protection from creditors, separate assets from the annual tax liability of the original owner and even help reduce estate taxes in some situations.
  4. Charitable Giving. With charitable giving as part of an estate plan, you can make outright gifts to charities or set up a charitable remainder annuity trust (CRAT) to provide income to a surviving spouse, with the remainder going to the charity.

Your attorney will tell you that your estate plan is unique to your situation. A big part of an estate plan is about protecting your family, making sure assets pass smoothly to your designated heirs and eliminating stress for your loved ones.

Reference: Forbes (November 6, 2019) “4 Ways To Improve Your Estate Plan”

How Can I Make Amendments to an Estate Plan?

If you want to make changes to your estate plan, don’t think you can just scratch out a line or two and add your initials. For most people, it’s not that simple, says the Lake County Record-Bee’s recent article “Amending estate planning documents.” If documents are not amended correctly, the resulting disappointment and costs can add up quickly.

If you live in California, for example, a trust can be amended using the method that is stated in the trust, or alternatively by using a document—but not the will—that is signed both by the settlor or the other person holding the power to revoke the trust and then delivered to the trustee. If the trust states that this method is not acceptable, then it cannot be used.

In a recent case, the deceased settlor made handwritten notes—he crossed out existing trust language and handwrote his revisions to a recently executive amendment to his trust. Then he mailed this document, along with a signed post-it note stuck on the top of the document, to his attorney, requesting that his attorney draft an amendment.

Unfortunately, he died before the new revision could be signed. His close friend, the one he wanted to be the beneficiary of the change, argued that his handwritten comments, known as “interlineations,” were as effective as if his attorney had actually completed the revision and the document had been signed properly. He further argued that the post-it note that had a signature on it, satisfied the requirement for a signature.

The court did not agree, not surprisingly. A trust document may not be changed, just by scribbling out a few lines and adding a few new lines without a signature. A post-it note signature is also not a legal document.

Had he signed and dated an attachment affirming each of his specific changes made to the trust, that might have been considered a legally binding amendment to his trust.

A better option would be going to the attorney’s office and having the documents prepared and executed.

What about changes to a will? Changing a will is done either through executing a codicil or creating and executing a new will that revokes the old will. A codicil is executed just the same way as a will: it is signed by the testator with at least two witnesses, although this varies from state to state. Your estate planning attorney will make sure that the law of your state is taken into consideration, when preparing your estate plan.

If you live in a state where handwritten or holographic wills are accepted, no witnesses are required and changes to the will can be made by the testator directly onto the original without a new signature or date. Be careful about a will like this. Even if legal, it can lead to estate challenges and family battles.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney, if you decide that your will needs to be changed. Having the documents properly executed in a timely manner ensures that your wishes will be followed.

Reference: Lake County Record-Bee (October 5, 2019) “Amending estate planning documents.”

How Does a Probate Proceeding Work?

A Will, also known as Last Will and Testament, is a legal document that is used in probate court, if a person dies with assets that are in their name alone without a surviving joint owner or beneficiary designated, says the Record Online in the article “Anatomy of a probate proceeding.” The probate process proves the will is valid.

Probate is a judicial or court proceeding, where the probate court has jurisdiction over the assets of the person who has died. The court oversees the payment of debts, taxes and probate fees, in addition to supervising distribution of assets to the person’s beneficiaries. The executor of the will is to manage the probate assets and then report to the judge.

Without a will, things get messy. A similar court proceeding takes place, but it is known as an administrative proceeding, and the manager of the estate is called an administrator, and not the executor.

To start the probate proceeding, the executor completes and submits a probate petition with the probate court. Some executors do this on their own, but most hire an estate planning attorney to help. The attorney knows the process, which keeps things moving along.

The probate petition lists the beneficiaries named in the will, plus certain relatives who must, by law, receive legal notice in the mail. Let’s say that someone disinherits a child in their will. That child receives notice and learns they have been disinherited. Beneficiaries and relatives alike must return paperwork to the court stating that they either consent or object to the provisions of the will.

A disinherited child has the right to file objections with the court, and then begin a battle for inheritance that is known as a will contest. This can become protracted and expensive, drawing out the probate process for years. A will contest places all of the assets in the will in limbo. They cannot be distributed unless the court says they can, which may not occur until the will contest is completed.

The will contest can be resolved in two ways: with a settlement between the parties involved, or with a jury trial. It is always possible that the disinherited person could prevail and be awarded any amount of the inheritance, regardless of what the decedent said in their will.

In addition to the expense and time that probate takes, while the process is going on, assets are frozen. Only when the court gives the all clear does the judge issue what are called “Letters Testamentary,” which allows the executor to start the process of distributing funds. They must open an estate account, apply for a taxpayer ID for the account, collect the assets and ultimately, distribute them, as directed in the will to the beneficiaries.

Can a will contest, or probate be avoided? Avoiding probate, or having selected assets taken out of the estate, is one reason that people use trusts as part of their estate plan. Assets can also be placed in joint ownership, and beneficiaries can be added to accounts, so that the asset goes directly to the beneficiary.

By working closely with an estate planning attorney, you’ll have the opportunity to prepare an estate plan that addresses how you want assets to be distributed, which assets may be placed outside of your estate for an easier transfer to beneficiaries and what you can do to avoid a will contest, if there is a disinheritance situation looming.

Reference: Record Online (August 24, 2019) “Anatomy of a probate proceeding”

Electronic Wills Are Here—But Should You Have One?

Florida is one of the early states permitting residents to have wills, along with some other types of estate planning documents, signed and completed electronically and online. This will require remote notarizations and witnesses to appear via certain approved secure video chat services, reports News Chief in the article “Electronic wills are coming, but are they a good idea?”

A movement to pass a similar law failed in 2017, as the result of a veto by then Governor Scott. However, a revised and approved version of the bill passed this summer and has already been signed into law by Governor DeSantis.

Under the new law, notaries will be required to undergo new training in order to be able to conduct executions of electronic wills. Certain qualified and state-approved custodians will oversee safeguarding the completed electronic wills for safekeeping, until the creator of the will dies, at which time the electronic wills may be electronically filed with the appropriate probate court.

Florida is only the fourth state to implement laws related to the execution and storage requirements for electronic wills. One concern is whether other states will honor these documents.

If other states will not accept the electronic wills, then a deceased person’s assets that are subject to probate administration in other states may not go to the person’s intended beneficiaries. Traditional, hard copy will executions typically occur in an attorney’s office, with proper procedures and safeguards put into place by a licensed attorney who practices in this area of the law. Many of these same procedures and safeguards will not be in place for electronic execution of electronic wills.

There is concern that these wills present an enticing target and that many family members will argue that the will is not valid, because of undue influence or a lack of capacity.

The 2019 version of the law has safeguards, that were not in the 2017 law, to protect vulnerable adults. However, until these electronic laws go through probate contests, there will not be much clarity for estate planning attorneys. One last concern—if the documents can be executed electronically, there are greater opportunities for criminals or people with bad intentions to more easily take advantage of vulnerable seniors.

Whether you agree that electronic wills are the future, this is still a very new process that has yet to be tried and tested. There will likely be more questions raised in the next few years about their safety and includes cases that will be taken to court to resolve issues and challenges.

For most people, this is the time to wait and see how the electronic will scenario works out. It may take a few years before the bumps are ironed out. In the meantime, meet with an estate planning attorney to create an estate plan that is on paper and follows a traditional process.

Reference: News Chief (August 23, 2019) “Electronic wills are coming, but are they a good idea?”

Why Do I Need an Attorney to Help Me with Estate Planning?

Your estate plan can be simple or complicated. The New Hampshire Union Leader’s recent article, “Estate planning is important and may require help from a professional,” says that some strategies are definitely easier to implement—like having a will, for example. Others are more complex, like creating a trust. Whatever your needs, most strategies will probably necessitate that you hire a qualified estate planning attorney. Here are some situations that may require special planning attention:

  • Your estate is valued at more than the federal gift and/or estate tax applicable exclusion amount ($11.4 million per person in 2019);
  • You have minor children;
  • You have loved ones with special needs who depend on you;
  • You own a business;
  • You have property in more than one state;
  • You want to donate to charities;
  • You own valuable artwork or collectibles;
  • You have specific thoughts concerning health care; or
  • You desire privacy and want to avoid the probate process.

First, you need to understand your situation, and that includes factors like your age, health and wealth. Your thoughts about benefitting family members and taxes also need to be considered. You’ll want to have plans in place should you become incapacitated.

Next, think about your goals and objectives. Some common goals are:

  • Providing financial security for your family;
  • Preserving property for your heirs;
  • Avoiding disputes among family members or business partners;
  • Giving to a charity;
  • Managing your affairs, if you are disabled;
  • Having sufficient liquidity to pay the expenses of your estate; and
  • Transferring ownership of your property or business interests.

Ask your attorney about a will. If you have minor children, you must have a will to address guardianship, unless your state provides an alternative legal means to do so. Some people many need a trust to properly address their planning concerns. Some of your assets will also have their own beneficiary designations. Once you have you a plan, review it every few years or when there’s a birth, adoption, death, or divorce in the family.

Reference: New Hampshire Union Leader (July 27, 2019) “Estate planning is important and may require help from a professional”