How Do You Plan for the Death of a Spouse? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

The COVID pandemic has become a painful lesson in how important it is to having estate plans in order, especially when a spouse becomes sick, incapacitated, or dies unexpectedly. With more than 400,000 Americans dead from the coronavirus, not every one of them had an estate plan and a financial plan in place, leaving loved ones to make sense of their estate while grieving. This recent article from Market Watch titled “How to get your affairs in order if your spouse is dying” offers five things to do before the worst occurs.

Start by gathering information. Make all of your accounts known and put together paperwork about each and every account. Look for documents that will become crucial, including a durable power of attorney, an advanced health care directive and a last will. Gather paperwork for life insurance policies, investment portfolios and retirement accounts. Create a list of contact information for your estate planning attorney, accountant, insurance agent, doctors and financial advisors and share it with the people who will be responsible for managing your life. In addition, call these people, so they have as much information as possible—this could make things easier for a surviving spouse. Consider making introductions, via phone or a video call, especially if you have been the key point person for these matters.

Create a hard copy binder for all of this information or a file, so your loved ones do not have to conduct a scavenger hunt.

If there is an estate plan in place, discuss it with your spouse and family members so everyone is clear about what is going to happen. If your estate plan has not been updated in several years, that needs to be done. There have been many big changes to tax law, and you may be missing important opportunities that will benefit those left behind.

If there is no estate plan, something is better than nothing. A trust can be done to transfer assets, as long as the trust is funded properly and promptly.

Confirm beneficiary designations. Check everything for accuracy. If ex-spouses, girlfriends, or boyfriends are named on accounts that have not been reviewed for decades, there will be a problem for the family. Problems also arise when no one is listed as a beneficiary. Beneficiary designations are used in many different accounts, including retirement accounts, life insurance policies, annuities, stock options, restricted stock and deferred compensation plans.

Many Americans die without a will, known as “intestate.” With no will, the court must rely on the state’s estate laws, which does not always result in the people you wanted receiving your property. Any immediate family or next of kin may become heirs, even if they were people you with whom you were not close or from whom you may even have been estranged. Having no will can lead to estate battles or having strangers claim part of your estate.

If there are minor children and no will to declare who their guardian should be, the court will decide that also. If you have minor children, you must have a will to protect them and a plan for their financial support.

Create a master list of digital assets. These assets range from photographs to financial accounts, utility bills and phone bills to URLs for websites. What would happen to your social media accounts, if you died and no one could access them? Some platforms provide for a legacy contact, but many do not. Prepare what information you can to avoid the loss of digital assets that have financial and sentimental value.

Gathering these materials and having these conversations is difficult, but they are a necessity if a family member receives a serious diagnosis. If there is no estate plan in place, have a conversation with an estate planning attorney who can advise what can be done, even in a limited amount of time.

Reference: Market Watch (Jan. 22, 2021) “How to get your affairs in order if your spouse is dying”

 

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Do You Know Your Job as Executor, Agent or Trustee? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

It is not uncommon for a named executor or trustee to have some anxiety when they discover that they were named in a family member’s estate planning documents.

With the testator or grantor dead or incapacitated, the named individual is often desperate to learn what their responsibilities are.

It may seem like they are asked to put together pieces in a puzzle without a picture, especially when there is limited information to start with, says The Sentinel-Record’s recent article entitled “You’re an executor or trustee … Now what?”

Here is a quick run-down of the responsibilities of each of these types of agents:

An executor of an estate. This is a court-appointed person (or corporate executor) who administers the estate of a deceased person, after having been nominated for the role in the decedent’s last will and testament.

A trustee. This is an individual (or corporate trustee) who maintains and administers property or assets for the benefit of a beneficiary under a trust.

An agent named under a power of attorney. This person (or corporate agent) has the legal authority to act for the benefit of another person during that person’s disability or incapacity.

Each of these roles has different duties and responsibilities. For example, an executor, in most cases, is responsible for filing the original last will and testament of the testator with the probate court and then to be formally appointed by the court as the executor.

A trustee and executor both must provide notice to the beneficiaries of their role and a copy of the documents.

An agent named under a power of attorney may have authority to act immediately or only when the creator of the documents becomes disabled or incapacitated. This is often referred to as a “springing” power of attorney.

Each of these individuals is responsible for managing and preserving assets for the benefit of the beneficiary.

They also must pay bills out of the assets of the estate or trust, such as burial and funeral expenses.

Finally, they settle the estate or trust and make distributions.

Reference: The Sentinel-Record (Nov. 24, 2020) “You’re an executor or trustee … Now what?”

 

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How Do You Ask Parents about Estate Planning? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

How do you ask your parents about their estate planning? No matter how you slice it, it is a touchy subject to bring up.

You do not want to come off as greedy when asking your parents about their estate planning.  However, you need answers to certain questions to ensure that their financial wishes are carried out and there is a smooth transition of wealth and assets.

Yahoo Finance’s recent article entitled “How To Talk to Your Parents About Their Estate Plan (Without Making It Awkward)” shows us how to approach this touchy subject and get the info that you need.

Begin by asking your parents about whether they have an estate plan. You can tell them that they do not need to share the numbers and that you just want to be able to follow their instructions. A good way to start this conversation, is to acknowledge how awkward and difficult this conversation is for you. You should emphasize that you do not want to think about their deaths but are just trying to sort things out.

Experts say that you will likely get a better reception from your parents, if you let the conversation happen organically and not schedule a time to talk. No matter how you approach the topic of an inheritance from your parents, the objective of the discussion is to make certain they have a plan in place, so there will be a clear path for whomever is left behind to go forward. You can start by asking if they have these key legal documents:

  • A will
  • A power of attorney; and
  • A living will or health care directive.

Ask where your parents keep these documents and how you can access them, if necessary.

You should also ask if your parents have written funeral or burial instructions. You also need to ask them to give you other important information, so you can handle their finances if they are unable to or when they die. This includes account numbers and passwords, insurance policies, information on their retirement plan or pension administrator, as well as the contact information for their accountant, attorney, financial planner, or other financial professional.

Reference: Yahoo Finance (Oct. 7, 2020) “How To Talk to Your Parents About Their Estate Plan (Without Making It Awkward)”

 

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The Wrong Power of Attorney Could Lead to a Bad Outcome – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

There are two different types of advance directives, and they have very different purposes, as explained in the article that asks “Does your estate plan use the right type of Power of Attorney for you?” from Next Avenue. Less than a third of retirees have a financial power of attorney, according to a study done by the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies. Most people do not even understand what these documents do, which is critically important, especially during this Covid-19 pandemic.

Two types of Durable Power of Attorney for Finance. The power of attorney for finance can be “springing” or “immediate.” The Durable POA refers to the fact that this POA will endure after you have lost mental or physical capacity, whether the condition is permanent or temporary. It lists when the powers are to be granted to the person of your choosing and the power ends upon your death.

The “immediate” Durable POA is effective the moment you sign the document. The “springing” Durable POA does not become effective, unless two physicians examine you and both determine that you cannot manage independently anymore. In the case of the “springing” POA, the person you name cannot do anything on your behalf without two doctors providing letters saying you lack legal capacity.

You might prefer the springing document because you are concerned that the person you have named to be your agent might take advantage of you. They could legally go to your bank and add their name to your accounts without your permission or even awareness. Some people decide to name their spouse as their immediate agent, and if anything happens to the spouse, the successor agents are the ones who need to get doctors’ letters. If you need doctors’ letters before the person you name can help you, ask your estate planning attorney for guidance.

The type of impairment that requires the use of a POA for finance can happen unexpectedly. It could include you and your spouse at the same time. If you were both exposed to Covid-19 and became sick, or if you were both in a serious car accident, this kind of planning would be helpful for your family.

It is also important to choose the right person to be your POA. Ask yourself this question: If you gave this person your checkbook and asked them to pay your bills on time for a few months, would you expect that they would be able to do the job without any issues? If you feel any sense of incompetence or even mistrust, you should consider another person to be your representative.

If you should recover from your incapacity, your POA is required to turn everything back to you when you ask. If you are concerned this person will not do this, you need to consider another person.

Broad powers are granted by a Durable POA. They allow your representative to buy property on your behalf and sell your property, including your home, manage your debt and Social Security benefits, file tax returns and handle any assets not named in a trust, such as your retirement accounts.

The executor of your will, your trustee, and Durable POA are often the same person. They have the responsibility to manage all of your assets, so they need to know where all of your important records can be found. They need to know that you have given them this role and you need to be sure they are prepared and willing to accept the responsibilities involved.

Your advance directive documents are only as good as the individuals you name to implement them. Family members or trusted friends who have no experience managing money or assets may not be the right choice. Your estate planning attorney will be able to guide you to make a good decision.

Reference: Market Watch (Oct. 5, 2020) “Does your estate plan use the right type of Power of Attorney for you?”

 

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What Does My Estate Plan Look Like after Divorce? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Planning an estate after a divorce involves adopting a different type of arithmetic. Without a spouse to anchor an estate plan, the executors, trustees, guardians or agents under a power of attorney and health care proxies will have to be chosen from a more diverse pool of those that are connected to you.

Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “How to Revise Your Estate Plan After Divorce” explains that beneficiary forms tied to an IRA, 401(k), 403(b) and life insurance will need to be updated to show the dissolution of the marriage.

There are usually estate planning terms that are included in agreements created during the separation and divorce. These may call for the removal of both spouses from each other’s estate planning documents and retirement accounts. For example, in New York, bequests to an ex-spouse in a will prepared during the marriage are voided after the divorce. Even though the old will is still valid, a new will has the benefit of realigning the estate assets with the intended recipients.

However, any trust created while married is treated differently. Revocable trusts can be revoked, and the assets held by those trusts can be part of the divorce. Irrevocable trusts involving marital property are less likely to be dissolved, and after the death of the grantor, distributions may be made to an ex-spouse as directed by the trust.

A big task in the post-divorce estate planning process is changing beneficiaries. Ask for a change of beneficiary forms for all retirement accounts. Without a stipulation in the divorce decree ending their interest, an ex-spouse still listed as beneficiary of an IRA or life insurance policy may still receive the proceeds at your death.

Divorce makes children assume responsibility at an earlier age. Adult children in their 20s or early 30s typically assume the place of the ex-spouse as fiduciaries and health care proxies, as well as agents under powers of attorney, executors and trustees.

If the divorcing parents have minor children, they must choose a guardian in their wills to care for the children, in the event that both parents pass away.

Ask an experienced estate planning attorney to help you with the issues that are involved in estate planning after a divorce.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (July 7, 2020) “How to Revise Your Estate Plan After Divorce”

 

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How to Plan for Incapacity – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Planning for incapacity is just as important as planning for death. One is certain, the other is extremely likely. Therefore, it makes sense to prepare in advance, advises the article “Planning ahead for incapacity helps you and family” from The Press-Enterprise.

Let us start by defining capacity. Each state has its own language but for the most part, incapacity means that a person is incapable of making decisions or performing certain acts. A concerned adult child is usually the one trying to have a senior parent declared incapacitated.

A person who has a mental or physical disorder may still be capable of entering into a contract, getting married, making medical decisions, executing wills or trusts, or performing other actions. However, before a person is declared incapacitated by medical professionals or a court, having a plan in place makes a world of difference for the family or trusted person who will be caring for them. Certain legal documents are needed.

Power of Attorney. This is the primary document needed in case of incapacity. There are several kinds, and an estate planning attorney will know which one will be best for your situation. A “springing” power of attorney becomes effective, only when a person is deemed incapacitated and continues throughout their incapacity. A POA can be general, broadly authorizing a named person to act on different matters, like finances, determining where you will live, entering into contracts, caring for pets, etc. A POA can also be drafted with limited and specific powers, like to sell a car within a certain timeframe.

The POA can be activated before you become incapacitated. Let us say that you are diagnosed with early-stage dementia. You may still have legal capacity but might wish a trusted family member to help handle matters. For elderly people who feel more comfortable having someone else handle their finances or the sale of their home, a POA can be created to allow a trusted individual to act on their behalf for these specific tasks.

A POA is a powerful document. A POA gives another person control of your life. Yes, your named agent has a fiduciary duty to put your interests first and could be sued for mismanagement or abuse. However, the goal of a POA is to protect your interests, not put them at risk. Choosing a person to be your POA must be done with care. You should also be sure to name an alternate POA. A POA expires on your death, so the person will not be involved in any decisions regarding your estate, burial or funeral arrangements. That is the role of the executor, named in your will.

Advance health care directive, or living will, provides your instructions about medical care. This document is one that most people would rather not think about. However, it is very important if your wishes are to be followed. It explains what kind of medical care you do or do not want, in the event of dementia, a stroke, coma or brain injury. It gets into the details: do you want resuscitation, mechanical ventilation or feeding tubes to keep you alive? It can also be used for post-death wishes concerning autopsies, organ donation, cremation or burial.

The dramatic events of 2020 have taught us all that we do not know what is coming in the near future. Planning in advance is a kindness to yourself and your family.

Reference: The Press-Enterprise (July 19, 2020) “Planning ahead for incapacity helps you and family”

 

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Coronavirus Makes Estate and Tax Planning an Urgent Task – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought estate planning front and center to many people who would otherwise dismiss it as something they would get to at some point in the future, says the article “Estate and Life Insurance Considerations During the Covid-19 Pandemic” from Bloomberg Tax. Many do not have a frame of reference to address the medical, legal, financial, and insurance questions that now need to be addressed promptly. They have never experienced anything like today’s world. The time to get your affairs in order is now.

What will happen if we get sick? Will we recover? Who will take care of us and make legal decisions for us? What if a family member is in an assisted living facility and is incapacitated? All of these “what if” questions are now pressing concerns. Now is the time to review all legal, insurance and financial plans, and take into consideration two new laws: the SECURE Act and the CARES Act.

An experienced estate planning attorney who focuses in estate planning will save you an immense amount of money. Bargain hunters be careful: a small mistake or oversight in an estate plan can lead to expensive consequences. A competent legal professional is the best investment.

Here is an example of what can go wrong: A person names two minor children—under age 18—as beneficiaries on their IRA account, life insurance policy or bank account. The person dies. Minors are not permitted to hold title to assets. Minors in New York are considered wards of the court in need of protection and court supervision. Therefore, in this state, the result of the beneficiary designation means that a special Surrogate’s Court proceeding will need to occur to have a pecuniary guardian appointed for the minors, even if the applicant is their custodial guardian.

Another “what if?” is the support for a disabled or special needs beneficiary who may be receiving government support. If the parents are gone, who will care for their disabled child? What if there are not enough assets in the estate to provide supplemental financial support, in addition to the government benefits? Life insurance can be used to fund a special needs trust to ensure that their child will not be dependent upon family or friends to care for their needs. However, if there is no special needs trust in place, an inheritance may put the child’s government support in jeopardy.

Here are the core estate planning documents to be prepared:

  • Last Will and Testament
  • Revocable Living Trust
  • Durable General Power of Attorney
  • Health Care Declaration

The SECURE Act changed the rules regarding inherited IRAs. With the exception of a surviving spouse and a few other exempt individuals, the required minimum distributions must be taken within a ten- year time period. This causes an additional income tax liability for future generations. There are strategies to reduce the impact, but they require advance planning with the help of an estate planning attorney.

Reference: Bloomberg Tax (June 18, 2020) “Estate and Life Insurance Considerations During the Covid-19 Pandemic”

 

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What You Need to Do after a Loved One Dies – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

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 is 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 are 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 are 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 does not 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 are permitted to do. The probate of a will takes time.

It is best to get started promptly, so that there is 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”

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Your Children Wish You Had an Estate Plan – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

It is the adult children who are in charge of aging parents when they need long-term care. They are also the ones who settle estates when parents die. Even if they cannot always come out and tell you, the recent article, “Why your children wish you had an Elder Law Estate Plan” from the Times Herald-Record spells out exactly why an elder law estate plan is so important for your loved ones.

Avoid court proceedings while living. In a perfect world, everyone over age 18 will have an advance directive, including a power of attorney, a health care proxy, and a living will. These documents appoint others to make financial, legal, and medical decisions, in case of incapacity. Without them, the children will have to get involved with time-consuming, expensive guardianship proceedings, where a judge appoints a legal guardian to make these decisions. Your life is turned over to a court-appointed guardian, instead of your children or another person of your choosing.

Avoid court proceedings after you die. If you die and assets are in your name alone, then your estate will go through probate, a court proceeding that can be time consuming and costly. Not having any assets in trusts leaves your kids open to the possibility of wills being challenged, disputes among family members and litigation that can drag on for years.

Wills in probate court are public documents. Trusts are private documents. Do you really want a stranger to access your will and learn about your assets?

An elder law estate plan also plans for the possibility of long-term care and costs. Nursing home care costs can run between $12,000—$18,000 per month. If you do not have long-term care insurance, you can create a Medicaid Asset Protection Trust (MAPT) that protects assets in the trust from nursing home costs, once the assets are in the trust for five years. The MAPT also protects assets from homecare provided by Medicaid, called “community” Medicaid, once the assets are in the trust for 30 months under a new rule that starts on October 1, 2020.

The “elder law power of attorney” has unlimited gifting powers that could save about half of a single person’s assets from the cost of nursing homes. This can be done on the eve of needing nursing home care, but it is always better to do this planning in advance.

Having a plan in place decreases stress and anxiety for adult children. They are likely busy with their own lives, working, caring for their children and coping in a challenging world. When a plan is in place, they do not have to start learning about Medicaid law, navigating their way through the court system, or wondering why their parents did not take advantage of the time they had to plan properly.

You probably do not want your children remembering you as the parents who left a financial and legal mess behind for the them to clean up. Speak with an elder law estate planning attorney to create a plan for your future. Your children will appreciate it.

Reference: Times Herald-Record (May 23, 2020) “Why your children wish you had an Elder Law Estate Plan”

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Do I Need a Revocable Living Trust? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

A revocable living trust is created with a written agreement or declaration that names a trustee to manage and administer the property of the grantor. If you are a competent adult, you can establish an RLT. As the grantor, or creator of the trust, you can name any competent adult as your trustee, or you can use a bank or a trust company for this role. The grantor can also act as trustee throughout his lifetime.

Investopedia’s article from last fall entitled “Should You Set up a Revocable Living Trust?” explains that after it is created, you must retitled assets—like investments, bank accounts, and real estate—into the trust. You no longer “own” those assets directly. Instead, they belong to the trust and do not have to go through probate at your death. However, with a revocable living trust, you retain control of the assets while you are alive, even though they no longer belong to you directly. A revocable living trust can be changed, and any income earned by the trust’s assets passes to you and is taxable. However, the assets themselves do not transfer from the trust to your beneficiaries until your death.

Avoiding probate is the big benefit of a living trust, but other benefits like privacy protection and flexibility make it a good choice. A living trust can be used to help control a guardian’s spending habits for the benefit of minor children. It can also instruct another individual to act on your behalf, if you become incapacitated and need someone to make decisions for you. Should you become impaired or disabled, the trust can automatically appoint your trustee to oversee it and your financial affairs without a durable power of attorney.

Although there are several advantages to establishing a revocable living trust, there also some drawbacks:

Expense. Establishing a trust requires legal assistance, which is an expense.

Maintaining Records. Most of the time, you need to monitor it on an annual basis and make adjustments as needed (they do not automatically adapt to changed circumstances, like a divorce or a new grandchild). There is the trouble of ensuring that future assets are continuously registered to the trust.

Re-titling Property. When your RLT is established, property must be re-titled in the name of the trust, requiring additional time. Fees can apply to processing title changes.

Minimal Asset Protection. Despite the myth, a revocable living trust offers little asset protection beyond avoiding probate if you retain an ownership interest, such as naming yourself as trustee.

Administrative Expenses. There can also be additional professional fees, such as investment advisory and trustee fees, if you appoint a bank or trust company as the trustee.

There’s No Tax Break. Your assets in the RLT will continue to incur taxes on their gains or income and be subject to creditors and legal action.

Compared to wills, revocable trusts have more privacy, more control and flexibility over asset distribution. With a revocable living trust, you do most of the work up front, making the disposition of your estate easier and faster. However, an RLT requires more effort, and there is an expense in creating and maintaining it.

Work with an experienced estate planning attorney, if you are considering a revocable living trust.

Reference: Investopedia (Oct. 31, 2019) “Should You Set up a Revocable Living Trust?”

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