Power of Attorney

Intestate Succession: Should I Let The State Write My Will?

It’s a common question to ask an estate planning attorneys: “I’m not wealthy, Do I Really Need A Will?” A recent article in The Sun explains that the answer is “yes.” If you die without a will you are said to die “intestate,” state probate laws will determine who will receive the assets in your estate. This is is known as “Intestate Succession.” Of course, that may not be how you wanted things to go. That’s why you need a will.

Intestate Succession
If you don’t have a will the state will decide who will receive your assets.

When you die, your assets (i.e., your “estate”) are distributed to family members and loved ones in your estate plan, if there is no surviving joint owner or designated beneficiary (e.g., life insurance, annuities, and retirement plans). No matter the complexity, a will is a key component of any basic plan.

A will allows you make decisions about the distribution of your assets, such as your real estate, personal property, family heirlooms, investments and businesses. You can make donations to your favorite charities or a religious organization. Your will is also important, if you have minor children: it’s where you nominate a guardian to care for them if you die.

Of course, you can avoid intestate succession by writing your own will or paying for a program on the Internet, but it’s better to have one prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney. Prior to sitting down with an attorney, make a listing of all your assets (your home, real estate, bank accounts, retirement plans, personal property and life insurance policies). If you have prized possessions or family heirlooms, be sure to also detail these.

Make a list of all debts, such as your mortgage, auto loans and credit cards. You should also collect contact information for all immediate living family members, detailing their addresses and birth dates.

When meeting with an attorney, ask about other components of an estate plan, such as a power of attorney and medical directive.

The originals of these documents should be kept in a safe place, where they can be easily accessed by your estate administrator or executor.

You should also review your estate plan every few years and at significant points in your life, like marriage, divorce, the adoption or birth of a child, death of a beneficiary and divorce.

Do your homework, then visit an experienced estate planning attorney to make sure you avoid intestate succession and receive important planning insights from their experience working with estate plans and families.

Reference: The (Jonesboro, AR) Sun (July 15, 2020) “Do I Really Need A Will?”

What Do I Need besides a Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare?

A medical power of attorney (POA) is a durable power of attorney for healthcare. This document lets a trusted friend or family member serve as your agent to make important and necessary healthcare decisions, if you become incapacitated or unable to communicate or participate in care.

Forbes’s recent article entitled “For Medicare, Having A Power Of Attorney Is Not Enough” explains that with COVID-19, this is very important. The risk for severe illness from this disease increases with age, and hospitals aren’t permitting visitors. This lack of access can create some major challenges in managing a family, dealing with critical business issues and paying bills.

Here’s one more: powers of attorney don’t stand alone, when it comes to dealing with Medicare issues. Medicare requires a beneficiary’s written permission to use or provide personal medical information for any purpose not defined in the privacy notice contained in the Medicare & You handbook. A competent person can complete the form, call the “1-800-MEDICARE Authorization to Disclose Personal Health Information.” When needed, the representative is then authorized to talk with Medicare, research and choose Medicare coverage, handle claims and file an appeal.

Make sure that you’ve authorized Medicare to release information to a family member or an agent. You should also see if the authorization applies for a specified period of time or if it applies indefinitely. You must mail the completed form to Medicare. You can revoke this authorization at any time. For those who are no longer able to give consent, their personal representative can complete the form and attach a duly executed power of attorney.

There’s another authorization to address. It concerns individual Medicare plans – Medicare Advantage, Part D prescription drug, or Medicare supplement. Every plan has an authorization form that gives the authority to speak to plan representatives about claims or coverage, update contact information and more, depending on the individual plan.

To begin this process, check the plan’s member information or talk to a customer service representative.

You never know what’s in the future, so take the time now to prepare. You should take these three important steps.

  1. Establish or update your financial and medical powers of attorney
  2. Identify and name an authorized Medicare representative; and
  3. Contact your Medicare plan(s) and fill out the authorization forms.

Reference: Forbes (August 4, 2020) “For Medicare, Having A Power Of Attorney Is Not Enough”

What Basic Estate Planning Documents Do I Need?

AARP’s recent article entitled “Sign These Papers” suggests that the following documents will give you and your family financial protection, as well as peace of mind.

Advance Directive. This document gives your family, loved ones and medical professionals your instructions for your health care. A living will, which is a kind of advance directive, details the treatment you’d like to have in the event you’re unable to speak for yourself. It covers things like when you would want doctors to stop treatment, pain relief and life support. Providing these instructions helps your family deal with these issues later.

Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care. This document, regularly included in a comprehensive estate plan, lets you name a trusted person (plus a backup or two) to make medical decisions on your behalf, when you’re unable to do so.

Revocable Living Trust. Drawn up correctly by an experienced estate planning attorney, this makes it easy to keep track of your finances, allow a trusted person step in, if necessary, and make certain that there are fewer problems for your heirs when you pass away. A revocable living trust is a powerful document that allows you to stay in control of all your finances as long as you want. You can also make changes to your trust as often as you like.

When you pass away, your family will have a much easiest task of distributing the assets in the trust to your beneficiaries. Without this, they’ll have to go through the probate process.  It can be a long and possibly costly process, if you die with only a will or intestate (i.e., without a will).

Will. Drafting a will with the guidance of an experienced estate planning attorney lets you avoid potential family fighting over what you’ve left behind. Your will can describe in succinct language whom you want to inherit items that might not be in your trust — your home or car, or specific keepsakes, such as your baseball card collection and your Hummel Figurines.

Durable Financial Power of Attorney. If you’re alive but incapacitated, the only way a trusted person, acting on your behalf, can access an IRA, pension or other financial account in your name is with a durable financial power of attorney. Many brokerages and other financial institutions have their own power of attorney forms, so make sure you ask about this.

These five documents (sometimes four, if your advance directive and health care power of attorney are combined) help you enjoy a happier, less stressful life.

With these documents you know that you’ve taken the steps to make navigating the future as smooth as possible. By making your intentions clear and easing the inheritance process as much as you possibly can, you’re taking care of your family. They will be grateful that you did.

Reference: AARP (August/September 2018) “Sign These Papers”

What are the Estate Planning Basics?

Estate planning is an all-encompassing term that refers to the process of organizing, inventorying and making plans for the proper handling of your affairs during incapacity and after you die. This typically involves writing a will, setting up a power of attorney and healthcare directives with the help of an experienced estate planning attorney.

CNET’s article entitled “Estate planning 101: Your guide to wills, trusts and all your end-of-life documents” provides us with some of the key steps in getting started with estate planning.

Create an Inventory. Your estate includes all of the things you own, such as your car and other valuable possessions, plus “intangible assets” like investments and savings. If you own a company, that’s also part of your estate. Everything you own should be given a valuation. Have your home and other valuables appraised.

Evaluate your family’s needs. A big reason for estate planning is to make certain that your family is cared for, in the case of your death or incapacitation. If you’re a breadwinner for your family, the loss of your income could be devastating financially. Consider a life insurance policy to help provide a financial cushion that can be used to cover living expenses, college tuition cost, and mortgage payments. You may also need to designate a guardian, if you have children under the age of 18.

Make job assignments. Dividing up a person’s property can be a tough and emotional task. Make it easier by ensuring that all of your assets have been assigned a beneficiary. You’ll also name a few people to coordinate the process of dividing up your belongings. List your beneficiaries, so they know who gets what.

Create a Will. You should have a legally binding document setting everything out in as much detail as possible. A will is a legal document that directs the way in which you want your assets and affairs handled after you die. This includes naming an executor, who is someone to manage how your will is executed and take care of the distribution of your assets.

Help your family if you’re incapacitated. A living will (also known as a medical care or health care directive) states your healthcare preferences, in case you’re unable to communicate or make those decisions on your own. If you need life support, a living will states your preferences.

Start estate planning sooner rather than later. Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney today.

Reference: CNET (June 8, 2020) “Estate planning 101: Your guide to wills, trusts and all your end-of-life documents”

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 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?”

Don’t Risk it: Protect Your Finances From Coronavirus Complications

Many Americans spend a lot of time and effort in managing their finances. While most are worried about how the coronavirus (COVID-19) will impact their income—whether that’s because they are temporarily furloughed, find themselves suddenly without a job, or watching their investment and retirement accounts dwindle—there is another way COVID-19 can wreak havoc on American’s finances: lack of incapacity planning.

As the coronavirus continues to expand across the country, thousands of Americans are unable to carry out normal financial responsibilities because they are too ill, or they are stuck abroad and unable to travel home, or from a lack of resources due to being isolated at home.

While feeling healthy, individuals should plan ahead now and ensure that someone will take care of their financial duties by setting up a Financial Power of Attorney. This important legal document will not only protect your finances should you fall ill from COVID-19 but also from any events that might leave you incapacitated, like an injury or accident.

A Financial Power of Attorney (FPA) allows you to select a trusted family member or friend who will be responsible for managing your money and other property if you become mentally incapacitated (unable to make your own decisions) due to illness or injury. Without this document, bills won’t get paid, tax returns won’t be filed, bank and investment accounts held in your name will become inaccessible, retirement distributions can’t be requested, and property can’t be bought, sold, or managed.

If you get sick and are unable to make or communicate your financial decisions and don’t have an updated FPA in place, a judge can appoint someone to take control of your assets and make all personal and medical decisions for you through a court-supervised guardianship or conservatorship.

Why would a court do that?—You may ask.  As an adult, no one is automatically able to act for you, you must legally appoint them through the use of an FPA. Without it, you and your loved ones could lose valuable time, money, and control.

WORD OF CAUTION: Don’t think you’re protected just because your assets are held jointly with your spouse, child, or family member. Here are three reasons why you shouldn’t rely on joint ownership:

  1. Limited power. While a joint account holder may be able to access your bank account to pay bills or access your brokerage account to manage investments, a joint owner of real estate will not be able to mortgage or sell the property without the consent of all other owners.
  2. Tax liability. By adding a family member’s name to your accounts or real estate titles you might be saddling them with gift tax liability.
  3. Property seizure. You read that correctly. If your joint owner is sued then your property could be seized in order to pay their debt.

If you’ve already got an FPA, make sure yours is kept up to date.  An FPA can become “obsolete” in as short as one year. Many institutions don’t want to rely on stale, outdated documents. Depending on your circumstances, a stale, obsolete power of attorney may not be able to help you and your family with insurance contracts, retirement plans, banking and investment accounts, online personal accounts such as email, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn, and elder care and special needs planning. If it’s been more than a few years since you’ve signed your power of attorney, it might be time for a fresh one.

Regardless of your priorities, there is a financial power of attorney that’s right for your situation and goals. Determine your specific needs while you are of sound mind.  Of course, nothing tops the advice and recommendations of an attorney experienced in these matters.

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”

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