Estate Planning Attorney

What Is an Advance Directive, and Why You Need This Document?

The coronavirus pandemic has had an impact on the entire world. No wonder—it’s a frightening disease that experts are just beginning to understand. Many of us are asking ourselves: Am I ready for a worst-case scenario? Anyone who does not have the health care portion of their estate plan in order, needs to address it now, says the timely article “COVID-19 crisis highlights the importance of completing advance directives” from Cincinnati.com.

The topic of an advance directive used to be introduced with a question about what would happen if a person were in a car accident, rushed to the hospital and unable to convey their wishes for care.  The question has now become, what if a sudden onset of COVID-19 occurred, and you were unable to speak on your own behalf? Would your loved ones know what you would want, or would they have to guess?

All adults—that is, anyone over the age of 18—should have an advance directive. The process of creating this and other health care-related estate planning documents will provide the answers to your loved ones, while helping you work through your wishes. Here’s how to start:

What matters to you? Give this considerable thought. What is important to you, who best knows and understands you and who would you trust to make critical decisions on your behalf, in the event of a medical emergency? What medical treatment would you want—or not want—and who can you count on to carry out your wishes?

Get documents in order, so your wishes are carried out. Your estate planning attorney can help you draft and execute the documents you need, so you can be confident that they will be treated as legitimate by health care providers. The estate planning lawyer will know how to execute the documents, so they are in compliance with your state’s laws. Here’s what you’ll want:

  • A living will, which records your wishes for end of life medical treatment, if you cannot speak on your own behalf.
  • Medical power of attorney, to designate a person to make health care decisions, when you are not able to do so. The person is referred to as an agent, surrogate or proxy.
  • A HIPAA release form, so the person you designate can receive and review information about your condition with your medical care providers.

Note that none of these documents concerns distribution of your personal property and assets. For that, you’ll want a will or revocable living trust, which your estate planning attorney can also prepare for you.

Talk to loved ones now. Consider this conversation a gift to them. This relieves them from a lifetime of wondering if they did the right thing for you. Have a forthright conversation with them, let them know about the documents you have have prepared, where to find them and what your wishes are.

Reference: Cincinnati.com (April 27, 2020) “COVID-19 crisis highlights the importance of completing advance directives”

Requests for Estate Plans Reflect Fears about Coronavirus

Estate planning lawyers have always known that estate planning is not about “if,” but about “when.” The current health pandemic has given many people a wake-up call. They realize there’s no time to procrastinate, reports the article “Surge on wills: Fearing death by coronavirus, people ask lawyers to write their last wishes” from InsuranceNews.net. Legal professionals urge everyone, not just the elderly or the wealthy, to put their end-of-life plans in writing.

The last time estate planning attorneys saw this type of surge was in 2012, when wealthy people were worried that Congress was about to lower the threshold of the estate tax. Today, everyone is worried.

Top priorities are creating a living will stating your wishes if you become incapacitated, designating a surrogate or a proxy to make medical decisions on your behalf and granting power of attorney to someone who can make legal and financial decisions.

An estate plan, including a last will and testament (and often trusts) that detail what you want to happen to assets and who will be guardian to minor children upon your death, spares your family legal costs, family disagreements and hours in court that can result when there is no estate plan.

The coronavirus has created a new problem for families. In the past, a health care surrogate would be in the hospital with you, talking to healthcare providers and making decisions on your behalf. However, now there are no visitors allowed in hospitals and patients are completely isolated. Estate planning attorneys are recommending that specific language be added to any end of life documents that authorize a surrogate to give instructions by phone, email or during an online conference.

Any prior documents that may have prohibited intubation need to be revised, since intubation is part of treatment for COVID-19 and not necessarily just an end-of-life stage.

Attorneys are finding ways to ensure that documents are properly witnessed and signed. In some states, remote signings are being permitted, while other states, Florida in particular, still require two in-person witnesses, when a will or other estate planning documents are being signed.

There are many stories of people who have put off having their wills prepared, figuring out succession plans that usually take years to plan and people coming to terms with what they want to happen to their assets.

Equally concerning are seniors in nursing homes who have not reviewed their wills in many years and are not able to make changes now. Older adults and relatives are struggling with awkward and urgent circumstances, when they are confined to nursing homes or senior communities with no visitors.

Reference: InsuranceNews.net (April 3, 2020) “Surge on wills: Fearing death by coronavirus, people ask lawyers to write their last wishes”

The Second Most Powerful Estate Planning Document: Power of Attorney

All too often, people wait until it’s too late to execute a power of attorney. It’s uncomfortable to think about giving someone full access to our finances, while we are still competent. Some estate planning attorneys believe that the power of attorney, or POA, is actually the second most important estate planning document after a will. Here’s what a POA can do for you.

The term POA is a reference to the document, but it also is used to refer to the person named as the agent in the document.

Generally speaking, any POA creates a fiduciary relationship, for either legal or financial purposes. A Medical or Healthcare POA creates a relationship for healthcare decisions. Sometimes these are for a specific purpose or for a specific period of time. However, a Durable POA is created to last until death or until it is revoked. It can be created to cover a wide array of needs.

Here’s the critical fact: a POA of any kind needs to be executed, that is, agreed to and signed by a person who is competent to make legal decisions. The problem occurs when family members or spouse do not realize they need a POA until their loved one is not legally competent and does not understand what they are signing.

Incompetent or incapacitated individuals may not sign legal documents. Further, the law protects people from improperly signing, by requiring two witnesses to observe the individual signing (and in Florida and many other states it must also be notarized by a Notary Public).

The law does allow those with limited competency to sign estate planning documents, so long as they are in a moment of lucidity at the time of the signing. However, this is tricky and can be dangerous, as legal issues may be raised for all involved, if capacity is challenged later on.

If someone has become incompetent and has not executed a valid power of attorney, a loved one will need to apply for guardianship. This is a court process that is expensive, can take several months and leads to the court being involved in many aspects of the person’s life. A power of attorney can be executed quickly.

The biggest concern to executing a power of attorney, is that the person is giving an agent the control of their money and property.

Having an estate planning attorney create the power of attorney that is best suited for each individual’s situation is the most sensible way to provide the protection of a POA, without worrying about giving up control while one is competent.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Feb. 24, 2020) “Power of attorney can be tailored to circumstances”

Preparing for the Inevitable: The Loss of a Spouse

Becoming a widow or widower at a relatively young age puts many people in a tough financial position, says the article “Preparing for the Unexpected Death of a Spouse” from Next Avenue. At this point in their lives, they are too young to draw Social Security benefits. There is no best time to lose your spouse, but this is a particularly hard time.

Women are more likely than men to lose a spouse, and they are typically left in a worse financial position than if their spouse dies before they are old enough to take retirement benefits.

One of the best ways to plan for this event, is for both spouses to have life insurance. This can replace income, and term life insurance, if purchased early in life, can be relatively affordable. The earlier a policy is purchased, the better. This can become a safety net to pay bills and maintain a lifestyle.

Another key component for surviving early widowhood, is being sure that both spouses understand the couple’s finances, including how household bills are paid. Usually what happens is that one person takes over the finances, and the other is left hoping that things are being done properly. That also includes knowing the accounts, the log in and password information and what bills need to be paid at what dates.

Having that conversation with a spouse is not easy, but necessary. There are costs that you may not be aware of, without a thorough knowledge of how the household works. For instance, if the husband has done all of the repairs around the house, maintaining the yard and taking care of the cars, those tasks still need to be done. Either the widow will become proficient or will have to pay others.

Couples should work with an estate planning attorney and a financial advisor, as well as an accountant, to be sure that they are prepared for the unexpected. What survivor’s benefits might the surviving spouse be eligible to receive? If there are children at home age 16 or under, there may be Social Security benefits available for the child’s support.

Discuss what debt, if any, either spouse has taken on without the other’s knowledge. Any outstanding medical bills should also be discussed. The last thing a loved one should have to cope with when a spouse passes, is a tangle of debt. However, this often happens.

If the spouse was a veteran, the surviving spouse might be eligible for benefits from the Veterans Administration. Find out what information will be needed to apply for benefits.

Talk with your estate planning attorney to make sure that all proper documents have been prepared. This includes a last will and testament, power of attorney, health care proxy and any trusts.

Reference: Next Avenue (Dec. 18, 2019) “Preparing for the Unexpected Death of a Spouse”

How Does the SECURE Act Change Your Estate Plan?

The SECURE Act has made big changes to how IRA distributions occur after death. Anyone who owns an IRA, regardless of its size, needs to examine their retirement savings plan and their estate plan to see how these changes will have an impact. The article “SECURE Act New IRA Rules: Change Your Estate Plan” from Forbes explains what the changes are and the steps that need be taken.

Some of the changes include revising wills and trusts which include provisions creating conduit trusts that had been created to hold IRAs and preserve the stretch IRA benefit, while the IRA plan owner was still alive.

Existing conduit trusts may need to be modified before the owner’s death to address how the SECURE Act might undermine the intent of the trust.

Rethinking and possibly completely restructuring the planning for the IRA account may need to occur. This may mean making a charity the beneficiary of the account, and possibly using life insurance or other planning strategies to create a replacement for the value of the charitable donation.

Another alternative may be to pay the IRA balance to a Charitable Remainder Trust (CRT) on death that will stretch out the distributions to the beneficiary of the CRT over that beneficiary’s lifetime under the CRT rules. Paired with a life insurance trust, this might replace the assets that will ultimately pass to the charity under the CRT rules.

The biggest change in the SECURE Act being examined by estate planning and tax planning attorneys is the loss of the “stretch” IRA for beneficiaries inheriting IRAs after 2019. Most beneficiaries who inherit an IRA after 2019 will be required to completely withdraw all plan assets within ten years of the date of death.

One result of the change of this law will be to generate tax revenues. In the past, the ability to stretch an IRA out over many years, even decades, allowed families to pass wealth across generations with minimal taxes, while the IRAs continued to grow tax tree.

Another interesting change: No withdrawals need be made during that ten-year period, if that is the beneficiary’s wish. However, at the ten-year mark, ALL assets must be withdrawn, and taxes paid.

Under the prior law, the period in which the IRA assets needed to be distributed was based on whether the plan owner died before or after the RMD and the age of the beneficiary.

The deferral of withdrawals and income tax benefits encouraged many IRA owners to bequeath a large IRA balance completely to their heirs. Others, with larger IRAs, used a conduit trust to flow the RMDs to the beneficiary and protect the balance of the plan.

There are exceptions to the 10-year SECURE Act payout rule. Certain “eligible designated beneficiaries” are not required to follow the ten-year rule. They include the surviving spouse, chronically ill heirs and disabled heirs. Minor children are also considered eligible beneficiaries, but when they become legal adults, the ten year distribution rule applies to them. Therefore, by age 28 (ten years after attaining legal majority), they must take all assets from the IRA and pay the taxes as applicable.

The new law and its ramifications are under intense scrutiny by members of the estate planning and elder law bar because of these and other changes. Speak with your estate planning attorney to review your estate plan to ensure that your goals will be achieved in light of these changes.

Reference: Forbes (Dec. 25, 2019) “SECURE Act New IRA Rules: Change Your Estate Plan”

Start the New Year with Estate Planning To-Do’s

Families who wish their loved ones had not created an estate plan are far and few between. However, the number of families who have had to experience extra pain, unnecessary expenses and even family battles because of a lack of estate planning are many. While there are a number of aspects to an estate plan that take some time to accomplish, The Daily Sentinel recommends that readers tackle these tasks in the article “Consider These Items As Part of Your Year-End Plan.”  

Review and update any beneficiary designations. This is one of the simplest parts of any estate plan to fix. Most people think that what’s in their will controls how all of their assets are distributed, but this is not true. Accounts with beneficiary designations—like life insurance policies, retirement accounts, and some bank accounts—are controlled by the beneficiary designation and not the will.

Proceeds from these assets are based on the instructions you have given to the institution, and not what your will or a trust directs. This is also true for real estate that is held in JTWROS (Joint Tenancy with Right of Survivorship) and any real property transferred through the use of a beneficiary deed. The start of a new year is the time to make sure that any assets with a beneficiary designation are aligned with your estate plan.

Take some time to speak with the people you have named as your agent, personal representative or successor trustee. These people will be managing all or a portion of your estate. Make sure they remember that they agreed to take on this responsibility. Make sure they have a copy of any relevant documents and ask if they have any questions.

Locate your original estate planning documents. When was the last time they were reviewed? New laws, and most recently the SECURE Act, may require a revision of many wills, especially if you own a large IRA. You’ll also want to let your executor know where your original will can be found. The probate court, which will review your will, prefers an original. A will can be probated without the original, but there will be more costs involved and it may require a few additional steps. Your will should be kept in a secure, fire and water-safe location. If you keep copies at home, make a note on the document as to where the original can be found.

Create an inventory of your online accounts and login data for each one. Most people open a new account practically every month, so keep track. That should include email, personal photos, social media and any financial accounts. This information also needs to be stored in a safe place. Your estate planning document file would be the logical place for this information but remember to update it when changing any information, like your password.

If you have a medical power of attorney and advance directive, ask your primary care physician if they have a means of keeping these documents, and explain how you wish the instructions on the documents to be carried out. If you don’t have these documents, make them part of your estate plan review process.

A cover letter to your executor and family that contains complete contact information for the various professionals—legal, financial, and medical—will be a help in the case of an unexpected event.

Remember that life is always changing, and the same estate plan that worked so well ten years ago, may be out of date now. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney in your state who can help you create a plan to protect yourself and your loved ones.

Reference: The Daily Sentinel (Dec. 28, 2019) “Consider These Items As Part of Your Year-End Plan”

Turning 65 in 2020? Some Pointers for a Special Year

Many things change when celebrating your 65th birthday. For one thing, if you haven’t already retired, chances are good that you’ve set a retirement date and it’s not too far away. There are a number of things to be considered, advises the article “Points to ponder before turning 65” from Knox News.

The year you turn 65 is the year that you enroll in Medicare. Coverage begins at age 65, and the initial window to enroll opens three months before your 65th birthday and ends three months after. Miss that deadline, and there may be penalties when you do at last sign up for Medicare.

You can sign up for Medicare, whether you are working or not. If you are turning 65 and already collecting Social Security, you’ll automatically be enrolled in Medicare Parts A and B. You’ll need to sign up for Part D to avoid penalties, unless you have coverage through a spouse’s employer.

Here are some details:

  • Part A covers hospital care and is generally free for enrollees.
  • Part B covers diagnostic and preventive care. You pay for it with a monthly premium.
  • If you’re still working at age 66 and have health insurance through your employer, you may choose not to enroll in Part B. You can sign up for Part A, at no cost, and delay Parts B and D.
  • If you’re still working past 65 and have creditable coverage through your employer or your spouse’s employer, then you can defer Medicare.

Note that you may not get a full monthly benefit, if you claim Social Security right away. You can begin collecting Social Security at the young age of 62, but you won’t get the full monthly benefit that you otherwise would get unless you wait until you reach full retirement age. That date depends upon your date of birth. For most people turning 65 in 2020, that means full retirement age is 66 plus two months. Is it worth the wait? Your monthly benefit shrinks by 7.8%, if you file for benefits at age 65.

This is the time to check on your estate planning documents. If you don’t have these already, speak with an estate planning attorney to make sure that you and your family are protected by the following:

  • General Durable Power of Attorney for Finances
  • Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare
  • HIPAA release
  • Revocable Living Trust
  • Advanced Health Care Directive
  • Last Will and Testament

It’s a great birthday to celebrate but be certain that you take care of the estate planning, Medicare and Social Security aspects of your life, as you prepare for this milestone.

Reference: Knox News (December 26, 2019) “Points to ponder before turning 65”Social Security, Medicare, Part A, Part B, Estate Planning Attorney, Power of Attorney, Revocable Living Trust, Health Care Directive, Last Will and Testament

What Happens If my Spouse Is Not on the Deed?

When one spouse has paid for or inherited the family home and the other spouse has not contributed to its purchase or upkeep, the spouse who purchased the home has to take proactive steps. Otherwise, the other spouse will inherit the home and have the right to live in it, lease it, visit once a year or do whatever he or she wishes to.

It’s their home, says a recent article from the Houston Chronicle titled “Navigating inheritance when husband is not on the deed,” and remains so, until they die or abandon the property.

In this case, the woman is the buyer of the home and she wants her son to have the house. The son will eventually own the home, but as long as the husband is alive, the son can’t take possession of the home or use it, unless given permission to do so by the husband.

The husband may remarry, and if so, he and his new wife may live in the home. If she dies before he does, according to Texas’ homesteading laws, the homestead rights don’t transfer to her. At that point, the son would inherit the home and the new wife would have to move out.

The husband doesn’t get to live in the house for free. He is responsible for paying property taxes and maintaining the house. If there is a mortgage, he must pay the interest on the mortgage, but the woman’s son would have to make principal payments. The son would also have to pay for the homeowner’s insurance.

However, there are options:

  • Move to another state, where the laws are more in the woman’s favor.
  • Sell the home.
  • Ask the husband to sign a post-nuptial agreement, where he waives his homestead right.
  • Get divorced.
  • Gift or sell the home to the son now and rent from him.

The last option is risky. If the son owns the home, there is no protection from the son’s creditor’s claims, if any, and the woman would lose her property tax homestead exemptions. If the son needs to declare bankruptcy or sell the home, or dies before his mother, there would be nothing she could do. If the son married, his wife would be an owner of the home. He (or she) could even force his mother out of the home.

Speak with an estate planning lawyer to see if gifting the house to your son is a good idea for your situation.

Reference: Houston Chronicle (Nov. 13, 2019) “Navigating inheritance when husband is not on the deed”

The Downside of an Inheritance

As many as 1.7 million American households inherit assets every year. However, almost seventy-five percent of all heirs lose their inheritance within a few years. More than a third see no change or even a decline in their economic standing, says Canyon News in the article “Three Setbacks Associated With Receiving An Inheritance.” Receiving an inheritance should be a positive event, but that’s often not the case. What goes wrong?

Problems with inheritance
Inheritances can be great, but they can have a downside too.

Family battles. A survey of lawyers, trust officers, and accountants conducted by TD Wealth found that at 44 percent of all inheritance setbacks are caused by family disagreements. Conflicts often arise, when individuals die without a properly executed estate plan. Without a will, asset distributions are left to the law of the state and the probate court.

However, there are also times when even the best of plans are created and problems occur. This can happen when there are issues with trustees. Trusts are commonly used estate planning tools, a legal device that includes directions on how and when assets are to be distributed to beneficiaries. Many people use them to shield assets from estate taxes, which is all well and good. However, if a trustee is named who is adverse to the interests of the family members, or not capable of properly managing the trust, lengthy and expensive estate battles can occur. Filing a claim against an adversarial trustee can lead to divisions among beneficiaries and take a bite out of the inheritance.

Poor tax planning. Depending upon the inheritance and the beneficiaries, there could be tax consequences including:

  • Estate Taxes. This is the tax applied to the value of a decedent’s assets, properties and financial accounts. The federal estate tax exemption as of this writing is very high—$11.4 million per individual—but there are also state estate taxes. Although the executor of the estate and not the beneficiary is typically responsible for the estate taxes, it may also impact the beneficiaries.
  • Inheritance Taxes. Some states have inheritance taxes, which are based upon the kinship between the decedent and the heir, their state of residence and the value of the inheritance. These are paid by the beneficiary, and not the estate. Six states collect inheritance taxes: Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Spouses do not pay inheritance taxes, when their spouse’s die. Beneficiaries who are not related to decedents will usually pay higher inheritance taxes.
  • Capital Gains Tax. In certain circumstances, heirs pay capital gains taxes. Recipients may be subject to capital gains taxes, if they make a profit selling the assets that they inherited. For instance, if someone inherits $300,000 in stocks and the beneficiary sells them a few years later for $500,000, the beneficiary may have to pay capital gains taxes on the $200,000 profit.

Impacts on Government Benefits. If an heir is receiving government benefits like Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), Supplemental Social Security (SSS) or Medicaid, receiving an inheritance could make them ineligible for the government benefit. These programs are generally needs-based, and recipients are bound to strict income and asset levels. An estate planning attorney will usually plan for this with the use of a Special Needs Trust, where the trust inherits the assets, which can then be used by the heir without losing their eligibility. A trustee is in charge of the assets and their distributions.

An estate planning attorney can work with the entire family, planning for the transfer of wealth and helping educate the family, so that the efforts of a lifetime of work are not lost in a few years’ time.

Reference: Canyon News (October 15, 2019) “Three Setbacks Associated With Receiving An Inheritance”

What has the Average American Saved for Retirement?

It’s the question we all wonder about, but not very many of us will come out and ask. A 2019 analysis of more than 30 million retirement accounts by Fidelity Investments found that the average balance in corporate sponsored 401(k) plans at the end of 2018 was $95,600. When it came to traditional, Roth and rollover IRAs, the number was $98,400, reports Investopedia in a recent article titled “What Is the Size of the Average Retirement Nest Egg?” A look at 403(b) and other defined contribution retirement plans in the non-profit sector found that it was $78,7000. These numbers were down between 7.8%-8% from the same quarter of the prior year. Blame the stock market for that.

Averages like this only indicate a few things. Younger workers, for example, tend to have less in their retirement accounts than older workers. Their salaries are smaller, and they haven’t had decades to accumulate tax deferred income in their accounts. However, that gap is wide.

A June 2018 report from the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies looked at a nationally representative sample of more than 6,000 workers and broke out retirement savings by generation. The boomer members had estimated median retirement savings of $164,000 in 2017, while Gen Xers had $72,000 and millennials had $37,000.

Aside from age, the big factors in retirement savings success seem to be education and income. People with higher income put more money into their retirement accounts. The Transamerica study shows that households with incomes of under $50,000 had estimated median retirement savings of $11,000. Households with incomes between $50,000 and $99,999 had median savings of $61,000 and those with incomes of $100,000 or more had $215,000.

The higher the level of education, the more money people have set aside for retirement.

Therefore, if you’re wondering how your nest egg compares to the average nest egg, the first thing you’ll want to do is decide to whom you want to compare yourself and your nest egg. You can compare yourself to the U.S. population in general, or to people who are more like you in education, age and income.

Here’s an unnerving thought: no matter if your nest egg is way above your peer group, that doesn’t mean it will be enough when retirement rolls around. Everyone’s situation is different, and life hands us unexpected surprises.

One way to prepare is to have an estate plan. If you don’t already have an estate plan, which includes a will, power of attorney, health care power of attorney, possibly trusts and other strategic tools for tax planning and wealth transfer, make an appointment with an estate planning attorney.

Reference: Investopedia (Sep. 24, 2019) “What Is the Size of the Average Retirement Nest Egg?”

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