There Is a Difference between Probate and Trust Administration – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Many people get these two things confused. A recent article, “Appreciating the differences between probate and trust administration,” from Lake County News clarifies the distinctions.

Let us start with probate, which is a court-supervised process. To begin the probate process, a legal notice must be published in a newspaper and court appearances are needed. However, to start trust administration, a letter of notice is mailed to the decedent’s heirs and beneficiaries. Trust administration is far more private, which is why many people chose this path.

In the probate process, the last will and testament and any documents in the court file are available to the public. While the general public may not have any specific interest in your will, estranged relatives, relatives you never knew you had, creditors and scammers have easy and completely legal access to this information.

If there is no will, the court documents that are created in intestacy (the heirs inherit according to state law), are also available to anyone who wants to see them.

In trust administration, the only people who can see trust documents are the heirs and beneficiaries.

There are cost differences. In probate, a court filing fee must be paid for each petition. There are also at least two petitions from start to finish in probate, plus the newspaper publication fee. The fees vary, depending upon the jurisdiction. Add to that the attorney’s and personal representative’s fees, which also vary by jurisdiction. Some are on an hourly basis, while others are computed as a sliding scale percentage of the value of the estate under management. For example, each may be paid 4% of the first $100,000, 3% of the next $100,000 and 2% of any excess value of the estate under management. The court also has the discretion to add fees, if the estate is more time consuming and complex than the average estate.

For trust administration, the trustee and the estate planning attorney are typically paid on an hourly basis, or however the attorney sets their fee structure. Expenses are likely to be far lower, since there is no court involvement.

There are similarities between probate and trust administration. Both require that the decedent’s assets be collected, safeguarded, inventoried and appraised for tax and/or distribution purposes. Both also require that the decedent’s creditors be notified, and debts be paid. Tax obligations must be fulfilled, and the debts and administration expenses must be paid. Finally, the decedent’s beneficiaries must be informed about the estate and its administration.

The use of trusts in estate planning can be a means of minimizing taxes and planning for family assets to be passed to future generations in a private and controlled fashion. This is the reason for the popularity of trusts in estate planning.

It should be noted that a higher level of competency—mental comprehension—must be possessed by an individual to execute a trust than to execute a will. A person whose capacity may be questionable because of Alzheimer’s or another illness may not be legally competent enough to execute a trust. Their heirs may face challenges to the estate plan in that case.

Reference: Lake County News (July 4, 2020) “Appreciating the differences between probate and trust administration”

Sims & Campbell, LLC – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning Attorneys

Alzheimer’s, Dementia and other Brain Diseases Require Special Estate Planning Steps – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

There are certain steps that can be taken by individuals, loved ones and family members to make this challenging time safer and smarter, advises an article “Financial And Estate Planning Steps To Take Now: Special Considerations For Those With Brain Disease” from Forbes.

Anyone living with a neurologic condition needs to be sure their planning reflects not only their condition but their personal experience of the condition. The variability of each person’s experience of a brain disease, from symptoms and severity to the progression rate and future prognosis to the possibility of any recovery, affects how they need to plan.

For an Alzheimer’s patient, in early stages there may be no problems in signing legal documents and putting legal safeguards in place to protect finances. Most people are not aware that the degree of competency to sign legal documents varies, depending upon the complexity of the documents to be signed and the circumstances. A relatively low level of competency is required to sign a will. This is known as “testamentary capacity.” A higher level of competency is required to sign something like a revocable trust, investment policy statement, etc. Therefore, a person who may be legally able to sign a will may not have the legal capacity to sign other documents. Alzheimer’s patients need to get their entire estate plan in order, as soon as a diagnosis is received. Safeguards are extremely important, including having an independent person, like a CPA or trusted family member, receive copies of all monthly bank and brokerage statements, in case abilities decline faster than anticipated.

Patients living with peripheral neuropathy may experience issues with balance, burning sensations, dizziness, hypersensitive skin and pain that make wearing socks or shoes impossible. If the condition becomes so severe that the person becomes homebound, they need to make changes: set up accounts, so bills can be paid online, have income streams set to automatic deposit and simplify and consolidate accounts. It is important to have a Power of Attorney (POA) that is effective immediately or a revocable living trust with a co-trustee. In this way, you do not have to leave home to conduct your business.

Parkinson’s disease may not be well understood by professional advisors. You will need to explain that your facial expression—Parkinsonian masked face—does not mean that you are not responding to a conversation. They need to know that your handwriting may change, becoming small and cramped. This can result in a bank or other financial institution refusing to accept your signature on documents. Your attorney can prepare a document that confirms you are living with Parkinson’s disease and that micrographia is one of your symptoms. The document should include three or four different signatures to reflect the variations. Have each signature witnessed and notarized.

People living with MS (multiple sclerosis) face the possibility of an exacerbation that could leave them incapacitated at any time. A revocable trust to coordinate financial management, with trusted individuals as co-trustees should be in place.

For people with these and other brain illnesses, an emergency financial and legal road map needs to be prepared. It should include monthly recurring bills, non-recurring bills like life insurance, property taxes, etc. Contact information for key advisors, your estate planning attorney, CPA, financial advisor, banker, insurance agent, etc., needs to be shared. Your estate plan should be updated, if you have not reviewed it in three or four years. If you do not have an estate plan in place, now is the time to have one created.

Reference: Forbes (May 17, 2020) “Financial And Estate Planning Steps To Take Now: Special Considerations For Those With Brain Disease”

Sims & Campbell, LLC – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning Attorneys

Retirement Planning and Declining Abilities – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Whether the reason is Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s or any of a number of illnesses that lead to dementia, it is hard for families to think about legal or financial concerns, when a diagnosis is first made. This can lead to serious problems in the near future, warns the article “Cognitive Decline Shouldn’t Derail Retirement Planning. Here are Some Tips to Prepare Your Finances” from Barron’s. The time to act is as soon as the family realizes their loved one is having a problem—even before the diagnosis is official.

Here are some useful tips for navigating cognitive decline:

Take an inventory. Families should create a detailed list of assets and liabilities, including information on who has access to each of the accounts. Do not leave out assets that have gone paperless, like online checking, savings, credit card and investment accounts. Without a paper trail, it may be impossible to identify assets. Try to do this while the person still has some ability to be actively involved. This can be difficult, especially when adult children have not been involved with their parent’s finances. Ask about insurance policies, veterans’ benefits, retirement accounts and other assets. One person in the family should be the point person.

Get an idea of what future costs will be. This is the one that everyone wants to avoid but knowing what care costs will be is critical. Will the person need adult day care or in-home care at first, then full-time medical care or admission to a nursing facility? Costs vary widely, and many families are completely in the dark about the numbers. Out-of-pocket medications or uncovered expenses are often a surprise. The family needs to review any insurance policy documents and find out if there are options to add or amend coverage to suit the person’s current and future needs.

Consider bringing in a professional to help. An elder law estate planning attorney, financial planner, or both, may be needed to help put the person’s legal and financial affairs in order. There are many details that must be considered, from how assets are titled, trusts, financial powers of attorney, advance health care directives and more. If Medicaid planning was not done previously, there may be some tools available to protect the spouse, but this must be done with an experienced attorney.

Automate any finances if possible. Even if the person might be able to stay in their own home, advancing decline may make tasks, like bill paying, increasingly difficult. If the person can sign up for online banking, with an adult child granted permission to access the account, it may be easier as time goes by. Some monthly bills, such as insurance premiums, can be set up for automatic payment to minimize the chances of their being unpaid and coverage being lost. Social Security or Supplemental Security Income benefits are now required to be sent via direct deposit or prepaid debit card. If a family member is still receiving a paper check, then now is the time to sign up for direct deposit, so that checks are not lost. Pension checks, if any, should also be made direct deposit.

Have the correct estate planning documents been prepared? A health care representative and a general durable power of attorney should be created, if they do not already exist. The durable power of attorney needs to include the ability to take action in “what if” cases, such as the need to enroll in Medicaid, access digital assets and set up any trusts. A durable power of attorney should be prepared before the person loses cognitive capacity. Once that occurs, they are not legally able to sign any documents, and the family will have to go through the guardianship process to become a legal guardian of the family member.

Reference: Barron’s (Jan. 11, 2020) “Cognitive Decline Shouldn’t Derail Retirement Planning. Here are Some Tips to Prepare Your Finances”

Sims & Campbell, LLC – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning Attorneys

What Is So Important About Powers Of Attorney? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Powers of attorney can provide significant authority to another person, if you are unable to do so. These powers can include the right to access your bank accounts and to make decisions for you. AARP’s article from last October entitled, “Powers of Attorney: Crucial Documents for Caregiving,” describes the different types of powers of attorney.

Just like it sounds, a specific power of attorney restricts your agent to taking care of only certain tasks, such as paying bills or selling a house. This power is typically only on a temporary basis.

A general power of attorney provides your agent with sweeping authority. The agent has the authority to step into your shoes and handle all of your legal and financial affairs.

The authority of these powers of attorney can stop at the time you become incapacitated. Durable powers of attorney may be specific or general. However, the “durable” part means your agent retains the authority, even if you become physically or mentally incapacitated. In effect, your family probably will not need to petition a court to intervene, if you have a medical crisis or have severe cognitive decline like late stage dementia.

In some instances, medical decision-making is part of a durable power of attorney for health care. This can also be addressed in a separate document that is just for health care, like a health care surrogate designation.

There are a few states that recognize “springing” durable powers of attorney. With these, the agent can begin using his or her authority, only after you become incapacitated. Other states do not have these, which means your agent can use the document the day you sign the durable power of attorney.

A well-drafted power of attorney helps your agent help you, because he or she can keep the details of your life addressed, if you cannot. That can be things like applying for financial assistance or a public benefit, such as Medicaid, or verifying that your utilities stay on and your taxes get paid. Attempting to take care of any of these things without the proper document can be almost impossible.

In the absence of proper incapacity legal planning, your loved ones will need to initiate a court procedure known as a guardianship or conservatorship. However, these hearings can be expensive, time-consuming and contested by family members who do not agree with moving forward.

Do not wait to do this. Every person who is at least age 18 should have a power of attorney in place. If you do have a power of attorney, be sure that it is up to date. Ask an experienced elder law or estate planning attorney to help you create these documents.

Reference: AARP (October 31, 2019) “Powers of Attorney: Crucial Documents for Caregiving”

Sims & Campbell, LLC – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning Attorneys