Estate Planning Lawyer

What You Need to Do after a Loved One Dies?

The Dallas Morning News’ recent article entitled “Three things to do on the death of a loved one” explains the steps you should take, if you are responsible for a family member’s assets after they die.

Be sure the property is secured. A deceased person’s property becomes a risk in some instances. Friends and family will help themselves to what they think they should get, including the deceased’s personal property. Once it is gone, it is hard to get it back and into the hands of the individual who’s legally entitled to receive it.

Criminals also look at the obituaries, and while everyone is at the funeral or otherwise unoccupied, burglars can break into the house and steal property. Assign security or ask someone to stay at the house to protect the property. You can also change the locks. Credit cards, debit cards, and checks need to be protected. The deceased’s mail must be collected, and cars should be locked up.

Make funeral plans. If you’re lucky, the deceased left a written Appointment of Burial Agent with detailed instructions, which can make your job much easier.

For example, Texas law lets a person appoint an agent to be in charge of funeral arrangements and to describe the arrangements. An estate planning attorney can draft this document as part of an estate plan. You should see if this document was included. If you’re listed as the agent, present the paper to the funeral home and follow the instructions. If there are no written instructions, the law will say who has the authority to make arrangements for the disposition of the body and to plan the funeral.

Talk to an experienced attorney. When a person dies, there is often a lapse in authority. The decedent’s power of attorney is no longer in effect, and the executor designated in the will doesn’t have any authority to act, until the will is admitted to probate and the executor is appointed by the probate judge and qualifies by taking the oath of office and filing a bond, if required. Direction is needed earlier rather than later, on what you’re permitted to do. The probate of a will takes time.

It is best to get started promptly, so that there’s an executor in place with power to handle the affairs of the decedent.

Reference: Dallas Morning News (April 10, 2020) “Three things to do on the death of a loved one”

What’s the Difference between Revocable and Irrevocable Trusts?

A trust is an estate planning tool that you might discuss with an experienced estate planning attorney, beyond drafting a last will and testament.

KAKE.com’s recent article entitled “Revocable vs. Irrevocable Trusts” explains that a living trust can be revocable or irrevocable.

You can act as your own trustee or designate another person. The trustee has the fiduciary responsibility to act in the best interests of the trust beneficiaries. These are the people you name to benefit from the trust.

There are three main benefits to including a trust as part of an estate plan.

  1. Avoiding probate. Assets held in a trust can avoid probate. This can save your heirs both time and money.
  2. Creditor protection. Creditors can try to attach assets held outside an irrevocable trust to satisfy a debt. However, those assets titled in the name of the irrevocable trust may avoid being accessed to pay outstanding debts.
  3. Minimize estate taxes. Estate taxes can take a large portion from the wealth you may be planning to leave to others. Placing assets in a trust may help to lessen the effect of estate and inheritance taxes, preserving more of your wealth for future generations.

What’s the Difference Between Revocable and Irrevocable Trusts?

A revocable trust is a trust that can be changed or terminated at any time during the lifetime of the person making the trust. When the grantor dies, a revocable trust automatically becomes irrevocable, so no other changes can be made to its terms.

An irrevocable trust is essentially permanent. Therefore, if you create an irrevocable trust during your lifetime, any assets you place in the trust must stay in the trust. That’s a big difference from a revocable trust: flexibility.

Whether a trust is right for your estate plan, depends on your situation. Discuss this with a qualified estate planning attorney. This has been a very simple introduction to a very complex subject.

Reference: KAKE.com (March 31, 2020) “Revocable vs. Irrevocable Trusts”

What Do I Do If I’m Named Financial Power of Attorney?

A financial power of attorney (POA) is a document in which the “principal” appoints a trusted someone known as the “attorney-in-fact” or “agent” to act on behalf of the principal, especially when the principal is incapacitated. It typically permits the attorney-in-fact to pay the principal’s bills, access his accounts, pay his taxes and buy and sell investments or even real estate. In effect, the agent steps into the shoes of the principal and is able to act for him or her in all matters, as described in the POA document.

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “What Are the Duties for Financial Powers of Attorney?” points out that these responsibilities may sound overwhelming, and it’s only natural to feel this way initially. Let’s look at the steps to take to do this important job:

  1. Start by reading the document. Review the POA document to determine precisely what the principal has given you power to do on their behalf. A POA typically includes information addressed to the agent that explains the legal duties he or she owes to the principal.
  2. See what you have to handle for the principal. Ask for a list of the principal’s assets and liabilities. If the principle is organized, it’ll be easy. If not, you will want to find about their brokerage and bank accounts, 401(k)s/IRAs/403(b)s, the mortgage, taxes, insurance and other monthly or recurring bills (like utilities, phone, cable and internet).
  3. Protect the principal’s property. Be sure the principal’s home is secure.  It’s often helpful to make a video to inventory the home. If it looks like the principal will be incapacitated for an extended period of time, you may cancel the phone and newspaper subscriptions. If you have control of the principal’s investments and their incapacitation may continue for a long time, review their brokerage statements for high-risk positions that you don’t understand, like options, puts and calls, or commodities. Get advice on any assets you don’t know how to handle.
  4. Pay all bills, as necessary. Review the principal’s bills and credit card statements, as you would your own, for potential fraud. Note that they may have bills automatically paid by credit card and plan accordingly.
  5. Pay taxes. Many powers of attorney give the agent the power to pay the principal’s taxes and deal with the IRS. If so, you’ll be responsible for filing and paying taxes on behalf of the principal. If the principal passes away, the executor or personal representative of the principal’s last will is responsible for preparing any final taxes.
  6. Keep meticulous records. Track every expenditure you make and every action you take on the principal’s behalf. You’ll be asked to demonstrate that you have upheld your duties and acted in the principal’s best interests. It will also be important for you to receive reimbursement for expenses, and (if the power of attorney provides for it) the time you spent acting as agent.

Finally, it’s important to know that your powers and obligations as the principal’s agent end when the principal passes away.  At that point, all powers conferred under the POA are extinguished and the person named as executor or personal representative in the principal’s will take over all duties.

Reference: Kiplinger (April 22, 2020) “What Are the Duties for Financial Powers of Attorney?”

When Should I Update My Estate Plan?

Forbes’ recent article entitled “Do You Need A Trust? 8 Important Goals A Trust Can Help You Achieve” discusses eight ways a trust can help you achieve specific legacy planning goals. The first step is to meet with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Everybody needs a will, but not everyone requires a trust. A trust provides greater flexibility and control over how your property and assets are distributed. Many people create a trust to avoid probate. As a result, it’s faster and easier for your named trustee(s) to distribute your assets to your heirs. There are a many different types of trusts with advantages and disadvantages. Talk about what will be best for you with your estate planning attorney.

  1. No probate. This process can take months or more to complete, and it can be very expensive. A trust is designed to settle your estate in a timely and relatively inexpensive manner.
  2. Privacy and confidentiality. Probate is public, so your will and other private financial and business info is available to everyone. However, a trust maintains privacy and confidentiality.
  3. Protection for beneficiaries. A trust can shield beneficiaries from lawsuits, creditors, or divorce. A trust can also protect the interests of a minor, by including direction for when distributions are made.
  4. Provide for children. This type of trust provides for the health care and personal needs of a minor child.
  5. Flexibility. As the creator of the trust, you determine the terms of the trust, and can put restrictions on how trust assets are managed. For instance, the trust could state that assets may only be used by the beneficiary to purchase a home or to pay medical bills but may not be distributed directly to the beneficiary.
  6. Preserve family wealth. Divorce and remarriage can result in assets that were supposed to stay in the family wind up leaving with the ex-spouse. A trust can make certain that your estate is preserved for grandchildren.
  7. Family values. A trust can be a wonderful way to pass down family values concerning education, home ownership, land conservation, community service, religious beliefs and other topics.
  8. Lessening family conflict. Challenging a trust is difficult and costly. Having a trust in place that clearly articulates your wishes for your family, reduces the potential for misunderstanding.

Whether you have a trust in place or are thinking about creating one, it’s important to meet regularly with your estate planning attorney to be certain your strategy and estate planning documents reflect any new state and federal tax laws, as well as any changes in your goals and circumstances.

Reference: Forbes (Feb. 24, 2020) “Do You Need A Trust? 8 Important Goals A Trust Can Help You Achieve”

Do I Need an Estate Plan with a New Child in the Family?

When a child is born or adopted, the parents are excited to think about what lies ahead. However, in addition to all the other new-parent tasks on the list, parents must also address a more depressing task: making an estate plan.

When a child comes into the picture, it’s important for new parents to take the responsible step of making a plan, says Motley Fool’s recent article entitled “As a New Parent, I Took These 3 Estate Planning Steps.”

Life insurance. To be certain that there’s money available for your child’s care and to fund a college education, parents can buy life insurance. You can purchase a term life insurance policy that’s less expensive than a whole-life policy and you’ll only need the coverage until the child is grown.

Create a will. A will does more than just let you direct who should inherit if you die. It gives you control over what happens to the money you leave to your child. If you were to pass and he wasn’t yet an adult, someone would need to manage the money left to him or her. If you don’t have a will, the court may name a guardian for the funds, and the child might inherit with no strings attached at 18. How many 18-year-olds are capable of managing money that’s designed to help them in the future?

Speak to an experienced lawyer to get help making sure your will is valid and that you’re taking a smart approach to protecting your child’s inheritance.

Designate a guardian. If you don’t name an individual to serve as your child’s guardian, a custody fight could happen. As a result, a judge may decide who will raise your children. Be sure that you name someone, so your child is cared for by people you’ve selected, not someone a judge assigns. Have your attorney make provisions in your will to name a guardian, in case something should happen. This is one step as a new parent that’s critical. Be sure to speak with whomever you’re asking to be your child’s guardian and make sure he or she is okay with raising your children if you can’t.

Estate planning may not be exciting, but it’s essential for parents.

Contact a qualified estate planning attorney to create a complete estate plan to help your new family.

Reference: Motley Fool (Feb. 23, 2020) “As a New Parent, I Took These 3 Estate Planning Steps”

What Is a ‘Survivorship’ Period?

A survivorship clause in a will or a trust says that beneficiaries can inherit, only if they live a certain number of days after the person who made the will or trust dies. The goal is to avoid situations where assets pass under your beneficiary’s estate plan, and not yours, if they outlive you only by a short period of time. While these situations are rare, they do occur, according to the article “How Survivorship Periods Work” from kake.com.

Many wills and trusts contain a survivorship period. Most estates won’t rise to the level of today’s very high federal estate tax exemption ($11.58 million for an individual), so a long survivorship period is not necessary. However, if the surviving spouse must wait too long to receive property under the will—six months or more—it might harm their eligibility for the marital deduction, even if they are made in a qualifying trust or an outright gift.

Even if a will does not contain a survivorship clause, many states require one. Some states require at least a five-day or 120-hour survivorship period. That law might apply to beneficiaries who inherit property under a will, trust or, if there is no will, under state law. This usually does not apply to those who are beneficiaries of an insurance policy, a POD bank account (Payable on Death), or a surviving co-owner of property held in joint tenancy. To learn what states have a set of laws, known as the Uniform Probate Code or the revised version of the Uniform Simultaneous Death Act, speak with a local estate planning lawyer.

Survivorship requirements are put into place in case of simultaneous or close to simultaneous deaths of the estate owners and the estate beneficiaries. This is to avoid having the distribution of assets from an estate owner’s estate distributed according to the beneficiary’s estate plan, and not the estate owner’s plan.

For an example, let’s say Jeff dies and leaves his estate to his sister Judy. Jeff has named his favorite charity as an alternative beneficiary. Jeff’s assets would normally go to his sister Judy. They would only go to his favorite charity, if Judy were not alive at the time of his death. However, if Jeff dies and then Judy dies 14 days later, Jeff’s assets could go to Judy’s beneficiaries under the terms of her will. The charity, Jeff’s intended beneficiary, would receive nothing.

The family would also have the burden of dealing with not one but two probate proceedings at the same time.

However, if a 30-day survivorship clause was in place, the assets would pass to his favorite charity, as originally intended. Jeff’s estate plan would be carried out, according to his wishes.

These are the types of details that make estate planning succeed as the estate owner wishes. Having a complete and secure—and properly prepared—estate plan in place is worth the effort.

Reference: kake.com (March 31, 2020) “How Survivorship Periods Work”

Rules for the HIPAA Waiver Relaxed?

The United States Department of Health and Human Services has announced that it won’t enforce penalties for violations of certain provisions of the HIPAA privacy rule against healthcare providers or their business associates for good-faith disclosures of protected health information (PHI) for public health purposes during the COVID-19 emergency.

The HHS Office for Civil Rights said that it was exercising its “enforcement discrimination” in announcing its change in policy during the coronavirus pandemic, a declared emergency period, reports Modern Healthcare in its article “HHS eases HIPAA enforcement on data releases during COVID-19.”

A HIPAA waiver of authorization is a legal document that permits an individual’s protected health information (PHI) to be used or disclosed to a third party. This waiver is part of a series of patient-privacy measures set forth in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996.

PHI covered under HIPAA is information that can be connected to a specific individual and is held by a covered entity, like a healthcare provider. HIPAA has set out 18 specific identifiers that create PHI, when linked to health information.

The notification was issued to support federal and state agencies, including the CMS and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that require access to COVID-19 related data, including protected health information.

“The CDC, CMS, and state and local health departments need quick access to COVID-19 related health data to fight this pandemic,” OCR director Roger Severino said in a statement. “Granting HIPAA business associates greater freedom to cooperate and exchange information with public health and oversight agencies, can help flatten the curve and potentially save lives.”

HIPAA’s privacy rule only permits business associates of HIPAA-covered entities to disclose protected health information for certain purposes, under explicit terms of a written agreement.

The moratorium enforcement doesn’t extend to other requirements or prohibitions under the privacy rule, nor to any obligations under the HIPAA security and breach notification rules, OCR said.

Reference: Modern Healthcare (April 2, 2020) “HHS eases HIPAA enforcement on data releases during COVID-19”

If Not Now, When? It is the Time for Estate Planning

What else could possibly go wrong? You might not want to ask that question, given recent events. A global pandemic, markets in what feels like free fall, schools closed for an extended period of time—these are just a few of the challenges facing our communities, our nation and our world. The time is now, in other words, to be sure that everyone has their estate planning completed, advises Kiplinger in the article “Coronavirus Legal Advice: Get Your Business and Estate in Order Now.”  

Business owners from large and small sized companies are contacting estate planning attorney’s offices to get their plans done. People who have delayed having their estate plans done or never finalized their plans are now getting their affairs in order.

Because the virus is recognized as being especially dangerous for people who are over age 60 or have underlying medical issues, which includes many business owners and CEOs, the question of “What if I get it?” needs to be addressed. Not having a succession plan or an estate plan, could lead to havoc for the company and the family.

Establishing a Power of Attorney is a key part of the estate plan, in case key decision makers are incapacitated, or if the head of the household can’t take care of paying bills, taxes or taking care of family or business matters. For that, you need a Durable Power of Attorney.

Another document needed now, more than ever: is an Advance Health Care Directive. This explains how you want medical decisions to be made, if you are too sick to make these decisions on your own behalf. It tells your health care team and family members what kind of care you want, what kind of care you don’t want and who should make these decisions for you.

This is especially important for people who are living together without the legal protection that being married provides. While some states may recognize registered domestic partners, in other states, medical personnel will not permit someone who is not legally married to another person to be involved in their health care decisions unless they are appointed in an Advanced Health Care Directive.

Personal information that lives only online is also at risk. Many bills today don’t arrive in the mail, but in your email inbox. What happens if the person who pays the bill is in a hospital, on a ventilator? Just as you make sure that your spouse or children know where your estate plan documents are, they also need to know how to access your online accounts, who your estate planning attorney is, where your insurance policies, financial records and legal documents are and your contact list of key friends and family members.

Reference: Kiplinger (March 16, 2020) “Coronavirus Legal Advice: Get Your Business and Estate in Order Now.”

How Long Do You Have to Settle an Estate?

The beneficiaries of an estate are typically eager to receive their inheritance. In a common scenario, a trust was left instead of a will. All the parties received their respective shares, except for the two brothers and a sister who is the executor. The trust instructed the brothers to divide the real estate property in half for each of them. The sister was to get $15,000.

However, one of the brothers lives in the home.

As you may know, the administrator or executor of an estate has the job of collecting the decedent’s assets, paying debts, making distributions to the beneficiaries and finally closing the estate in an expeditious manner.

nj.com’s recent article entitled “How long does it take to pay out a family trust?” tries to sort out what the siblings need to do to settle the estate. The key factor in this scenario is the wording of the trust.

There are situations in which a trust is used as a substitute for a will. In that case, a person’s assets are placed in trust. The trustee pays all the liabilities and administers the assets in the trust in accordance with the instructions of the trust during the individual’s life and after death.

Even when trusts are used as will substitutes, they aren’t always designed to be closed with distribution to happen immediately after the debts are paid, as in the case of the estate. The terms of the trust dictate the trustee’s duties as to the distribution of trust assets.

If you’re a beneficiary of a trust and think that the trustee is breaching his fiduciary duties, you should inform the trustee of the nature of the suspected breach. If nothing is done to remedy this, you may ask the court for help.

One option is that you can request the court to order the trustee to take actions, which you state in your complaint filed with the probate court. Another option is to request that the court direct the trustee to stop taking specific actions that you detail in your complaint.

A third choice is to ask the court to remove the trustee due to breach of fiduciary duties that you set forth in your complaint filed with the court.

However, such court intervention can be expensive. Another thing to consider is that the trustee may petition the court to have his legal fees paid from the trust funds—which will deplete the money in the trust. Because of this, it is usually best to attempt and resolve these issues before getting the court involved.

Reference: nj.com (Feb. 12, 2020) “How long does it take to pay out a family trust?

Is it Wise to Name Three Co-Executors of Your Will?

Is it wise to name co-executors of your will? This is a question that many people ask because the don’t want one of their children to feel “left out” or under appreciated.  This may get somewhat confusing when probating a will, if there are multiple executors.

There are pros and cons to naming co-executors of your will.

What are the pros and cons to choosing one child to act as your executor, instead of selecting all three of your children to act together?

nj.com’s recent article asks “I’m planning my will. Is it bad to have more than one executor?”

The article explains that the duty of the executor is to gather all the decedent’s assets, pay any outstanding debts and liabilities and then account for and distribute the remaining estate to the beneficiaries, according to the instructions in the decedent’s will.

The executor is allowed to hire professionals and others to help with tasks, like completing a decedent’s final income tax return or preparing the home for sale.

When you have multiple executors appointed, these tasks can be assigned to each person to lessen the burden of the many duties and responsibilities that an executor has.

On the downside, if those appointed can’t work together easily and without strife, appointing multiple siblings can make the administration of an estate much more difficult due to arguments, conflicts of interest, one sibling taking the lead to the resentment of the others or one executor undermining another executor’s actions.

The problem is, in situations where the siblings don’t get along, designating one of them as executor can cause hard feelings and conflict. It’s not uncommon for those siblings who aren’t named as executor, to complain about every decision made by the named executor or delay in the administration of the estate.

If there are multiple executors, the majority rules. That can avoid deadlock. Simple math in this case says that you want to avoid naming an even number of executors or name a person who can act as the tiebreaker.

Even with a “majority rules” agreement among the executors, there are some financial institutions and other entities that may require all the executors to sign documents and/or checks on behalf of the estate. This can become burdensome and inefficient, if there are multiple executors.

Speak with your estate planning attorney about your family dynamics and get their opinion about what would be best in your personal situation.

Reference: nj.com (May 22, 2019) “I’m planning my will. Is it bad to have more than one executor?”

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