Incapacity

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”

Everyone Should Have a Healthcare Power of Attorney

Before snowbirds begin their seasonal journey to warmer climates, it’s time to be sure that they have the important legal documents in place, advises LimaOhio.com in a recent article “Different seasons and documents, same peace of mind.” One of the most important documents that everyone should have is a healthcare power of attorney, and it should be prepared and be ready to be used at any time.

Having a healthcare power of attorney makes sense
A healthcare power of attorney is an often overlooked, but essential part of any good estate plan.

These documents name another person to make healthcare decisions, in case you are not able to make those decisions for yourself. We never think that anything will really happen to us, until it does. Having this document properly prepared and easily accessible helps our loved ones. They are the ones who will need the powers given by the document. Without it, they cannot act in a timely manner.

If traveling between a home state and a winter home, it is wise to have a set of documents that align with the laws of both states. It may be necessary to have a separate set of documents for each state, if the laws differ.

Healthcare powers of attorney typically need updating about every five years. The law has changed in recent years in Florida, and there are some specific powers that need to be stated precisely, so that the document can be used if needed.

If a healthcare power of attorney is not in place when it’s needed, the only way that someone else can make decisions for you, is to become your guardian. Guardianship takes considerably more time and costs more than preparing the document ahead of time. It should also be noted that once guardianship is established, the person who is the guardian will need to report to the court on a regular basis.

Another document that needs to be in place is a living will or advance directive. This is a document prepared to instruct others as to your wishes for end-of-life care. The document is created when a person is mentally competent and expresses their wishes for what they want to happen, if they are being kept alive by artificial means. For loved ones, this document is a blessing, as it lets them know very clearly what their family members wishes are.

Peace of mind is a wonderful thing to take with you as you prepare for a warm winter in a different climate. Talk with an estate planning attorney to be sure that your estate planning documents will be acceptable in your winter home.

Reference: LimaOhio.com (Oct. 26, 2019) “Different seasons and documents, same peace of mind”

What is an Advance Directive and Do I Need One?

These are difficult questions to think about. However, as every estate planning attorney knows, the questions “What is an Advance Directive?” and “Do I need one?” are very important. Should you ever become unable to speak for yourself, reports the Enid News & Eagle in the article “Veteran Connection: What you should know about advance directives,” there is a way to make a plan, so your wishes are known to others and by legally conveying them in advance, making sure you have a say, even when you don’t have a voice.

Everyone needs Advance Directives
Everyone over the age of 18 should have an Advance Directive so family and doctors know your wishes.

The advance directive helps family members and your doctors understand your wishes about medical care. The wishes you express through these two documents described below, require reflection on values, beliefs, views on medical treatments, quality of life during intense medical care and may even touch on spiritual beliefs.

The goal is to prepare so your wishes are followed, when you are no longer able to express them. This can include situations like end-of-life care, the use of a respirator to breathe for you, or who you want to be in the room with you, when you are near death.

It should be noted that an advance directive also includes a mental health component, that extends to making decisions on your behalf when there are mental health issues, not just physical issues.

There are two types of documents: a durable power of attorney for health care and a living will.

The durable power of attorney for health care lets you name a person you trust to make health care decisions when you cannot make them for yourself. This person is called your health care agent or surrogate and will have the legal right to make these decisions. If you don’t have this in place, your doctor will decide who should speak for you. They may rely on order of relationships: a legal guardian, spouse, adult child, parent, sibling, grandparent, grandchild or a close friend.

A living will is the document that communicates what kind of end of life health care you want, if you become ill and cannot communicate with your doctors. This helps your named person and your doctor make decisions about your care that align with your own wishes.

Another very important part of this issue: the conversation with the people who you want to be on hand when these decisions have to be made. Are they willing to serve in this capacity? Can they make the hard decisions, especially if it’s what you wanted and not what they would want? Do you want a spouse to make these decisions on your behalf? Many people do that, but you may have a trusted family member or friend you would prefer, if you feel that your spouse will be too overwhelmed to follow your wishes.

For additional information about Advance Directives and estate planning, download our free books and reports.

Reference: Enid News & Eagle (March 13, 2019) “Veteran Connection: What you should know about advance directives”

Common Estate Planning Mistakes That You Can Avoid

The number one estate planning mistake is failing to have or to update an estate plan, says the Times Herald in the article “Top six estate planning mistakes.” Therefore, start by working with an estate planning attorney to create an estate plan, and you’ll be way ahead of most Americans. Why does this matter?

An estate plan allows you to stay in control of your assets while you are alive, provide for your loved ones and for yourself in the event you become mentally or physically incapacitated, and when you die, give what you have worked to achieve to those you wish. It costs far less to take care of all of this while you are alive. It’s a gift to those you love, who are spared a lot of stress and costs if it must be figured out after you have passed.

Once you have a plan in place, you have to keep it updated. An estate plan is like a car: it needs gas, oil changes, and regular maintenance. If your family experiences significant changes, then your estate plan needs to be reviewed. If you change jobs, have a change in your financial status, or if you receive an inheritance, it’s time for a review. When there are changes to the law, regarding taxes or non-tax matters, you’ll want to make sure your plan still works.

The second biggest mistake we make is failing to plan for retirement. If you start thinking about retirement when it is five or 10 years away, you’re probably going to be working for a long time. When you are in your twenties, it is the ideal time to start saving for retirement. Most people don’t start thinking about retirement until their thirties, and many don’t plan at all.

There are many different “rules” for how to save for retirement and how to calculate how much income you’ll need to live during retirement. However, not all of them work for every situation. Advisors are now telling Americans they need to plan for living until and past their ninetieth birthday. That means you could be living in retirement for four decades.

Mistake number three—failing to fund trusts. Trust funding is completely and correctly aligning your assets with your trust. If you don’t fund the trust, which means putting assets into the trust by retitling assets that include bank accounts, investment accounts, real estate, insurance policies and other assets, adding the trust as an additional insured to home and auto insurance policies and have every change verified, you have an incomplete estate plan. Your heirs will have to clean up the mess left behind.

Fourth, failing to communicate your estate plan to your executor, beneficiaries and heirs is a common and easily avoidable mistake. Talk with everyone who is a part of your estate plan and explain what their roles are. Speak with the person you have named as Power of Attorney and Healthcare Proxy on a regular basis. Make sure they continue to be willing and able to perform the tasks you need them to do on your behalf. Make sure they know where your documents are.

Fifth, don’t neglect to make arrangements for bills to be paid and financial matters to be handled, when you are not able to do so. There are many studies which show that after age 60, our financial abilities decrease about 1% per year. Expect to need help at some point during your later years and put a plan in place to protect yourself and your spouse. If you are the main bill-payer, make sure your spouse can take care of everything as well as you, before any emergency strikes.

Finally, talk with your successors about what you would like to happen if and when you become mentally unable to make good decisions, including caregiving options. As we age, the likelihood of needing to be in a nursing home or other care facility increases. You can’t necessarily rely on your spouse living long enough to take care of you. Make sure that your financial power of attorney contains the appropriate gifting language, your assets are titled properly, and your successor financial agents know about the plan you have created. If you don’t have a long-term care policy now, try to buy one. They are less expensive than having to pay for care.

Protect yourself, your family and your loved ones by addressing these steps. You’ll be giving yourself, your spouse and your loved ones peace of mind.

Reference: Times Herald (Dec. 14, 2018) “Top six estate planning mistakes”

Estate Planning Checklist

A will is just one of a handful of documents every adult should have in place to protect themselves while they are living, and their heirs and families after they have passed away. Here are the “5 estate planning must-haves,” according to an article from the Augusta Free Press:

  1. Wills and Trusts. Your will directs the distribution of your assets. Without a will, the court will determine who gets your possessions, real property and any other assets, following the laws of your state. Depending on your situation, you and your heirs may benefit from setting up trusts to protect your assets from the probate process, maintain your privacy and possibly avoid some taxes. Keep in mind that if the will or trust is not created properly or doesn’t follow your state’s laws, it could be challenged or deemed invalid. Work with an experienced estate planning attorney to protect your family.
  2. Many of your accounts—bank accounts, investment accounts, retirement accounts, insurance policies—may already have a named beneficiary, who will inherit the account upon your death. However, if you have not updated those names recently, you may find the wrong person inheriting your assets. Once that occurs, there is no legal means of transferring the assets to another person. Always make sure you have a contingent (or secondary) beneficiary named, so if the primary beneficiary dies before you, or for some reason declines to accept the asset, you will have had an opportunity to choose another person to receive the asset. If there is no contingent beneficiary, the court will make that decision.
  3. Letter of Intent. It must be said that this is not a legally binding document. However, the information it could provide to your loved ones might be very helpful, as they move through the process of settling your estate. It can explain why you structured your asset distribution the way you did, why you would want a given family heirloom passed to a specific family member, or what you would like to have happen at your funeral. If you are not able to discuss these matters in a face-to-face conversation with your loved ones, this is a useful alternative.
  4. Power of Attorney. Planning for incapacity is an important part of estate planning. If you become incapacitated, you’ll need to have already given someone the power to manage your financial affairs. If you do not have a power of attorney, your family will need to turn to the court system, which will create delays and added stress. You’ll also want to have a healthcare power of attorney in place. Most people assume their spouses will immediately take on this role, but not everyone is capable of making the hard decisions, especially during an emergency situation.
  5. Legal Advice. Estate planning laws are governed by your state of residence. Your best option is to make an appointment with a local estate planning attorney to learn whether there are any other documents and plans you need to put into place. Some law firms provide a means of documenting assets to ensure that, at the time of death, your family isn’t on a scavenger hunt to identify assets. In certain states, you can assign a funeral representative to make sure your funeral, burial or cremation and memorial service wishes are carried out. Your attorney will know what you and your family need.

Reference: Augusta Free Press (Nov. 27, 2018) “5 estate planning must-haves”

Can Someone Become My Guardian Without My Knowing It?

Let’s start by understanding what guardianship is, and how it works.

What would happen if someone who you don’t know—or someone you do—decides you are not competent and tries to become your legal guardian? Could it happen?

MP900289434The concept of guardianship for a senior is a difficult thing to consider. Maintaining your independence and remaining in charge of your own life would be at risk, if someone wanted to become your legal guardian, says nj.com ,“Worried someone may want to be your guardian? Here's what you need to know.”

Let’s start by understanding what guardianship is, and how it works.

Guardians are appointed by a judge, for both minors and incapacitated individuals. An application is required to be made to the court in the state and county where the minor or alleged incapacitated person lives or where his or her property is located. In either situation, once the minor becomes 18, she receives the property. If the incapacitated person returns to full or partial competency, the court (upon application) may restore that person’s rights, which would dismiss or limit the guardianship.

A guardianship can be of the person. This is limited to making medical or similar decisions on an incapacitated person’s behalf, or concerning the person's property, or both. A guardianship can also be limited. This means that the guardian is appointed to only make certain decisions, like financial ones. A guardianship can also be plenary, which means the guardian can be appointed to address all issues.

When a guardian of an individual's property is appointed, the property is usually re-titled into the name of the guardian for the benefit of the incapacitated individual. This gives third parties notice of the guardianship.

In New Jersey, prior to an individual being appointed as the guardian of an alleged incapacitated person, that person has to be given notice of the proceedings. That person is also appointed an attorney by the court to advocate for them or to report to the court on their situation. Therefore, a senior would be given notice and legal representation.

The records of these types of proceedings aren’t open to the public, because of the confidential information in them, like certifications from physicians on the physical and mental condition of the alleged incapacitated person.

But, information on the name of the guardian who has been appointed to represent the incapacitated person should be available, so that third parties, including creditors, can know who to contact if they are providing good or services to that person.

Speak with an estate planning or elder law attorney, if you are concerned that someone may be considering applying for guardianship for you. They’ll know how to find out if this is true, and how you can protect yourself.

Reference: nj.com (August 24, 2018) “Worried someone may want to be your guardian? Here's what you need to know”

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