Is It Necessary to have a Medical Power of Attorney? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

There is no way around it, this is a difficult conversation to have with aging parents or loved ones. Who will take care of parents when they cannot take care of themselves? Do they have their estate plan in order? According to this article from Health, an important detail is often overlooked: “A Health Care Power of Attorney Is Essential for Aging Parents—Here’s Why.”

Referred to as a health care proxy or a medical power of attorney, a health care power of attorney allows a person to choose someone to make medical decisions on their behalf, if they are unable to do so. This is a different document than a living will, which serves to let a person outline their wishes if they cannot communicate for end-of-life care.

Naming a medical proxy in advance lets the person conduct their wishes, with full and complete knowledge of what those wishes are.

A health care power of attorney is also not the same as a last will and testament, which goes into effect after a person dies. There is nothing in a health care power of attorney concerning wealth distribution. The will and trusts address those matters.

Giving a trusted person the legal power to make medical decisions is a big step, but one that provides a sense of control and peace of mind. There should be a first choice and an alternate, in case the first person, usually a spouse, is unable or unwilling to serve.

Without a medical power of attorney, the family may need to go to court to get legal permission to make decisions. It is the last thing anyone wants to do when their loved one is in a critical medical situation. Imagine having to leave the hospital to go to court, when the minutes are ticking away and your parent is in the midst of medical crisis.

If someone fails to name a medical proxy and becomes incapacitated, the hospital itself will most often step in to make treatment decisions or rely on the rules of the state to pick a family member to make decisions. The person named by the hospital might not be the person the family wants, but it will have no choice.

Like having an estate plan in place, having a medical proxy in place eliminates a lot of unnecessary stress. Most parents name the adult children they feel will make decisions in their best interest. The responsible, dependable child, regardless of their age relative their siblings, is often named. If siblings do not get along and have a history of fighting, it may be best to name a cousin or trusted family friend.

An experienced estate planning attorney will make sure the health care proxy documents comply with the laws in the person’s state of residence. Every state has its own forms, and its own laws.

A discussion needs to take place between the person and the people they name in the health care proxy. Make sure the proxy is willing to take on the role and understands the person’s wishes.  The form should also be submitted to a health care facility or doctor’s office, so it is on file if it is needed. Unexpected events occur every day—being prepared makes it easier for loved ones.

Reference: Health (Dec. 1, 2021) “A Health Care Power of Attorney Is Essential for Aging Parents—Here’s Why”

 

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Who Should I Name as Trustee? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

When a revocable living trust is created, the grantor (person who creates the trust) names a successor trustee, the person who will take charge of the trust when the grantor dies. One of the biggest sticking points in creating a trust is often selecting a successor trustee. A recent article, “Be careful when choosing your successor trustee,” from Los Altos Town Crier explains what can go wrong and how to protect your estate.

When the grantor dies, the successor trustee is in charge of determining the value of the trust and distributing assets to named beneficiaries. If there are unclear provisions in the trust, the trustee is required by law, as a fiduciary, to use good judgment and put the interest of the beneficiaries ahead of the trustee’s own interests.

When considering who to name as a successor trustee, you have many options. Just because your first born adult child wants to be in charge does not mean they are the best candidate. You will want to name a reliable, responsible and organized person, who will be able to manage finances, tax reporting and respects the law.

The decision is not always an easy one. The child who lives closest to you may be excellent at caregiving, but not adept at handling finances. The child who lives furthest away may be skilled at handling money, but will they be able to manage their tasks long distance?

A trustee needs to be able to understand what their role is and know when they need the help of an estate planning attorney. Some trusts are complicated and tax reporting is rarely simple. The trustee may need to create a team of professionals, including an estate planning attorney, a CPA and a financial advisor. Someone who thinks they can manage an estate on their own with zero experience in the law or finance may be headed for trouble.

If there are no family members or trusted friends who can serve in this role, it may be best to consider a professional fiduciary to serve as a successor trustee. An estate planning attorney may also serve as a successor trustee.

The next option is a financial institution or trust company. Some banks have trust departments and take on this role, but they often have steep minimums and will only work with estates with significant value. Fees are also likely to be higher than for a professional fiduciary or other professional. Be sure to inquire how they evaluate your needs and ensure quality of care, if you become incapacitated. What processes are in place to protect grantors?

Another alternative is to identify a nonprofit with a pooled trust that accepts trustee responsibilities for individuals with special needs and for others who would prefer to have a nonprofit in this role.

Your estate planning attorney will be able to help you identify the best candidate for this role, as you work through the creation of the trust. Don’t be shy about asking for help with this important matter.

Reference: Los Altos Town Crier (Nov. 17, 2021) “Be careful when choosing your successor trustee”

 

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Can I Change My Estate Plan During Divorce? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Divorce is never easy. Adding the complexities of estate planning can make it harder. However, it still needs to be included during the divorce process, says a recent article entitled “How to Change Your Estate Plan During Divorce from the Waco Tribune-Herald.

Some of the key things to bear in mind during a divorce include:

Is your Last Will and Testament aligned with your pending divorce? The unexpected occurs, whether planning a relaxing vacation or a contentious divorce. If you were to die in the process, which usually takes a few years, who would inherit your worldly goods? Your ex? A trust created to take care of your children, with a trusted sibling as a trustee?

Are your beneficiary designations up to date? For the same reason, make sure that life insurance policies, retirement accounts and any financial accounts allowing you to name a beneficiary are current to reflect your pending or new marital status.

Certain changes may not be made until the divorce is finalized. For instance, there are laws concerning spouses and pension distribution. You might not be able to make a change until the divorce is finalized.  If your divorce agreement includes maintaining life insurance for the support of minor children, you must keep your spouse (or whoever is the agreed-upon guardian) as the policy beneficiary.

Once the divorce decree is accepted by the court, the best path forward is to have a completely new will prepared. Making a patchwork estate plan of amendments can be more expensive and leave your estate more vulnerable after you have passed. A new will revokes the original document, including naming an executor and a guardian for minor children.

The will is far from the only document to be changed. Other documents to be created include health care directives and medical and financial powers of attorney. All of these are used to name people who will act on your behalf, in the event of incapacity.

It is a good idea to update these documents during the divorce process. If you are in the middle of an ugly, emotionally charged divorce, the last person you want making life or death decisions as your health care proxy or being in charge of your finances is your soon-to-be ex.

Talk with your estate planning attorney so your attorney knows you are going through the divorce process. They will be able to make further recommendations to protect you, your children and your estate during and after the divorce.

Reference: Waco Tribune-Herald (Oct. 18, 2021) “How to Change Your Estate Plan During Divorce”

 

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How to Approach Parents about Estate Planning – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

One of the lessons learned from the pandemic is not to wait for the “right time” to prepare for death or incapacity. Aging parents who do not have a plan in place leave their children with a number of obstacles, says this recent article entitled “Why (and How) To Talk To Your Parents About Estate Planning” from NASDAQ.

One is scrambling to unravel the family finances at a time when you are still grief-stricken. Another is managing costs associated with severe illness and death. Incapacity can be even more complicated. It is more so, if the family has to apply for guardianship to make medical and financial decisions for a parent who cannot speak for themselves or manage their financial affairs.

To prevent a host of problems and expenses, start talking with aging parents about estate planning.  They do not have to live in an  “estate” to have an estate. This is simply the term used to describe all assets owned by a couple or individual.

An estate plan is a tool to convey intentions about assets and health. The first step may be to create an inventory of all assets and belongings, from the family home to personal belongings and digital assets. Next, is to have some tough conversations about their wishes for end-of-life care and medical decisions.

A few questions to get started:

  • Who should be the primary caregiver and decision maker?
  • How will health care expenses be paid?
  • Who do you want to make medical decisions?
  • What do you want to happen to your property after you die?
  • Should the family sell the home, or should one of the children inherit it?
  • Do you have any estate planning documents, and where are they kept?

Estate planning is different for everyone, so be wary of downloading basic estate documents from the web and hoping they will be valid. An experienced estate planning attorney will create the necessary documents, as per the laws of your parents’ state of residence, and reflecting their wishes.

If there is no will, or if a will is deemed invalid by the court, the laws of the state will govern how assets are distributed. Making sure a will is properly prepared, along with other estate planning documents, is a more efficient and less costly way to go.

Estate planning includes tax planning, which occurs when property passes from one person to another. Estate and inheritance taxes are the most common concern. While most Americans do not need to worry about the federal estate tax, individual states have their own rules and thresholds. Some states have both state estate taxes and inheritance taxes. There are ways to minimize taxes, from gifting during your parent’s lifetimes, to establishing trusts for beneficiaries.

An estate plan includes a Will, a Power of Attorney for financial matters, a Health Care Proxy so someone can make health care decisions, a Living Will (also known as an Advance Care Directive) and usually some kind of trust. Each serves a different purpose, but all name a designated person to act in a legal manner to handle the affairs of the person, while they are living and after they have passed.

Some families are more comfortable than others about talking about death and money, so you probably already know what to expect from your parents when trying to have this conversation. Be mindful of their feelings, and those of your siblings. These are hard, but necessary conversations.

Reference: NASDAQ (Nov. 10, 2021) “Why (and How) To Talk to Your Parents About Estate Planning”

 

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When Should You Update Your Estate Plan? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Updating an estate plan is not usually the first thing on one’s mind when large life events occur. However, if you fail to update your estate plan, over time the plan may not work—for you or your loved ones. Reviewing estate plans at least once every three or four years will help to reach your goals and protect your family, explains the article “Do I Need to Update My Estate Plan?” from Arkansas Business.

Two key documents are used to distribute your assets: your last will and testament and trusts. As your children and other family members mature, those documents should change as may be needed.

If you have a revocable trust, you need to review the dispositive provisions and the trust funding. One of the biggest mistakes in estate planning, after failing to have an estate plan, is failing to fund or manage the funds in a trust.

Trusts are created to avoid probate and establish a process for distributing assets in case of disability or death. However, if assets are not retitled to be owned by the trust, or if the assets do not have an appropriate beneficiary designation to transfer assets to the trust at the time of your death, they will not perform as intended. As new assets are purchased, they also need to be incorporated into your estate plan.

Relationships you have with people who have responsibilities for your estate plan may change over time. Those need to be updated, including the following:

Trustee—The person or institution administering and managing a revocable trust, when you can no longer do so.

Guardian—The individual who will have legal authority and responsibility to raise your minor child(ren).

Executor—The person who is in charge of administering and managing your estate.

Health Care Agent—The person you authorize to make medical decisions in the event of incapacity.

Another common point of failure for estate plans: neglecting to update beneficiary designations for assets like life insurance, retirement plans and any asset that customarily passes to an heir through a beneficiary designation.

A regular review of your estate plan with your estate planning attorney also allows your plan to incorporate changes in tax laws. The last few years have seen many significant changes in tax laws, and more changes are likely in the future. Strategies that may have been extremely effective five or ten years ago are probably outdated and might create costs for your heirs. A review with an experienced estate planning attorney can prevent unnecessary tax liabilities, unexpected inheritances and family feuds.

Reference: Arkansas Business (Sep. 2021) “Do I Need to Update My Estate Plan?”

 

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What are Digital Assets in an Estate? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Planning for what would happen to our intangible, digital assets in the event of incapacity or death is now as important as planning for traditional assets, like real property, IRAs, and investment accounts. How to accomplish estate planning for digital assets is explained in the article, aptly named, “Estate planning for your digital assets” from the Baltimore Business Journal.

Digital asset is the term used to describe all electronically stored information and online accounts. Some digital assets have monetary value, like cryptocurrency and accounts with gaming or gambling winnings, and some may be transferrable to heirs. These include bank accounts, domains, event tickets, airline miles, etc.

Ownership issues are part of the confusion about digital assets. Your social media accounts, family photos, emails and even business records, may be on platforms where the content itself is considered to belong to you, but the platform strictly controls access and may not permit anyone but the original owner to gain control.

Until recently, there was little legal guidance in managing a person’s digital files and accounts in the event of incapacity and death. Accessing accounts, managing contents and understanding the owner, user and licensing agreements have become complex issues.

In 2014, the Uniform Law Commission proposed the Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (UFADAA) to provide fiduciaries with some clarity and direction. The law, which was revised in 2015 and is now referred to as RUFADAA (Revised UFADAA) was created as a guideline for states and almost every state has adopted these laws, providing estate planning attorneys with the legal guidelines to help create a digital estate plan.

A digital estate plan starts with considering how many digital accounts you actually own—everything from online banking, music files, books, businesses, emails, apps, utility and bill payment programs. What would happen if you were incapacitated? Would a trusted person have the credentials and technical knowledge to access and manage your digital accounts? What would you want them to do with them? In case of your demise, who would you want to have ownership or access to your digital assets?

Once you have created a comprehensive list of all of your assets—digital and otherwise—an estate planning attorney will be able to update your estate planning documents to include your digital assets. You may need only a will, or you may need any of the many planning tools and strategies available, depending upon the type, location and value of your assets.

Not having a digital asset estate plan leaves your estate vulnerable to many problems, including costs. Identity theft against deceased people is rampant, once their death is noted online. The ability to pay bills to keep a household running may take hours of detective work on your surviving spouse’s part. If your executor does not know about accounts with automatic payments, your estate could give up hundreds or thousands in charges without anyone’s knowledge.

There are more complex digital assets, including cryptocurrency and NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens) with values from a few hundred dollars to millions of dollars. The rules on the valuation, sale and transfers of these assets are as yet largely undefined. There are also many reports of people who lose large sums because of a lack of planning for these assets.

Speak with your estate planning attorney about your state’s laws concerning digital assets and protect them with an estate plan that includes this new asset class.

Reference: Baltimore Business Journal (Sep. 16, 2021) “Estate planning for your digital assets”

 

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When Should You Fund a Trust? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

If your estate plan includes a revocable trust, sometimes called a “living trust,” you need to be certain the trust is funded. When created by an experienced estate planning attorney, revocable trusts provide many benefits, from avoiding having assets owned by the trust pass through probate to facilitating asset management in case of incapacity. However, it does not happen automatically, according to a recent article from mondaq.com, “Is Your Revocable Trust Fully Funded?”

For the trust to work, it must be funded. Assets must be transferred to the trust, or beneficiary accounts must have the trust named as the designated beneficiary. The SECURE Act changed many rules concerning distribution of retirement account to trusts and not all beneficiary accounts permit a trust to be the owner, so you will need to verify this.

The revocable trust works well to avoid probate, and as the “grantor,” or creator of the trust, you may instruct trustees how and when to distribute trust assets. You may also revoke the trust at any time. However, to effectively avoid probate, you must transfer title to virtually all your assets. It includes those you own now and in the future. Any assets owned by you and not the trust will be subject to probate. This may include life insurance, annuities and retirement plans, if you have not designated a beneficiary or secondary beneficiary for each account.

What happens when the trust is not funded? The assets are subject to probate, and they will not be subject to any of the controls in the trust, if you become incapacitated. One way to avoid this is to take inventory of your assets and ensure they are properly titled on a regular basis.

Another reason to fund a trust: maximizing protection from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) insurance coverage. Most of us enjoy this protection in our bank accounts on deposits up to $250,000. However, a properly structured revocable trust account can increase protection up to $250,000 per beneficiary, up to five beneficiaries, regardless of the dollar amount or percentage.

If your revocable trust names five beneficiaries, a bank account in the name of the trust is eligible for FDIC insurance coverage up to $250,000 per beneficiary, or $1.25 million (or $2.5 million for jointly owned accounts). For informal revocable trust accounts, the bank’s records (although not the account name) must include all beneficiaries who are to be covered. FDIC insurance is on a per-institution basis, so coverage can be multiplied by opening similarly structured accounts at several different banks.

One last note: FDIC rules regarding revocable trust accounts are complex, especially if a revocable trust has multiple beneficiaries. Speak with your estate planning attorney to maximize insurance coverage.

Reference: mondaq.com (Sep. 10, 2021) “Is Your Revocable Trust Fully Funded?”

 

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Why Do You Need a Health Care Directive? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Healthy adults often make the mistake of thinking they do not need a health care directive. However, the pandemic has made clear everyone needs this estate planning document, at any time of life, according to a recent article “Health care directive beneficial for anyone” from The Times-Tribune.

Anytime a person becomes severely incapacitated, even if just for a short time, and any time a young person becomes a legal adult, a health care directive is needed. In other words, everyone over the age of 18 needs to have a health care directive.

Several health care directives are prepared by an estate planning attorney as part of a comprehensive estate plan.

A Living Will or Advance Directive is used to express wishes for medical treatments, if you are not able to express them yourself.

A Power of Attorney for Health Care (also known as a Durable POA for Health Care or a Health Care Proxy) lets you name a trusted person who will make health care decisions on your behalf, if you cannot make the decisions or communicate your wishes.

A HIPAA Privacy Authorization makes it possible for health care providers to share medical information with a person of your choice. Otherwise, the health care providers are not permitted to discuss your medical history, medical status, diagnostic reports, lab results, etc., with family members.

Short term incapacity can result from illness or recovery from surgery or intense medical treatments. Having these documents in place permits a person you trust to have important conversations with your health care providers and to make decisions on your behalf.

Physicians will be permitted to discuss medical care with a named agent, who, in turn, will be able to discuss care or status with family members.

This documentation will also allow an authorized person to help you with insurance companies, billing departments at hospitals, pharmacies and to schedule medical appointments on your behalf.

If you are not married, this is especially important. Even a partner of many years has no legal right to act on your behalf.

For parents of young adults, having these documents in place will allow them to stay involved in an adult child’s healthcare. It is not a scenario that any parent wants to contemplate, but having these documents prepared in advance can save a great deal of stress and anguish, if and when they are needed.

Reference: The Times-Tribune (Aug. 15, 2021) “Health care directive beneficial for anyone”

 

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How Important Is a Power of Attorney? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

People are often surprised to learn a power of attorney is one of the most urgently needed estate planning documents to have, with a last will and health care proxy close behind in order of importance. Everyone over age 18 should have these documents, explains a recent article titled “The dangers of not having a power of attorney” from the Rome Sentinel. The reason is simple: if you have a short- or long-term health problem and cannot manage your own assets or even medical decisions and have not given anyone the ability to do so, you may spend your rehabilitation period dealing with an easily avoidable nightmare.

Here are other problems that may result from not having your incapacity legal planning in place:

A guardianship proceeding might be needed. If you are incapacitated without this planning, loved ones may have to petition the court to apply for guardianship so they can make fundamental decisions for you. Even if you are married, your spouse is not automatically empowered to manage your financial affairs, except perhaps for assets that are jointly owned. It can take months to obtain guardianship and costs far more than the legal documents in the first place. If there are family issues, guardianship might lead to litigation and family fights.

The cost of not being able to pay bills in a timely manner adds up quickly. The world keeps moving while you are incapacitated. Mortgage payments and car loans need to be paid, as do utilities and healthcare bills. Lapses of insurance for your home, auto or life, could turn a health crisis into a financial crisis, if no one can act on your behalf.

Nursing home bills and Medicaid eligibility denials. Even one month of paying for a nursing home out of pocket, when you would otherwise qualify for Medicaid, could take a large bite out of savings. The Medicaid application process requires a responsible person to gather a lot of medical records, sign numerous documents and follow through with the appropriate government authorities.

Getting medical records in a HIPAA world. Your power of attorney should include an authorization for your representative to take care of all health care billing and payments and to access your medical records. If a spouse or family member is denied access to review records, your treatment and care may suffer. If your health crisis is the result of an accident or medical malpractice, this could jeopardize your defense.

Transferring assets. It may be necessary to transfer assets, like a home, or other assets, out of your immediate control. You may be in a final stage of life. As a result, transferring assets while you are still living will avoid costly and time-consuming probate proceedings. If a power of attorney is up to date and includes a fully executed “Statutory Gift” authorization, your loved ones will be able to manage your assets for the best possible outcome.

The power of attorney is a uniquely flexible estate planning document. It can be broad and permit someone you trust to manage all of your financial and legal matters, or it can be narrow in scope. Your estate planning attorney will be able to craft an appropriate power of attorney that is best suited for your needs and family. The most important thing: do not delay having a new or updated power of attorney created. If you have a power of attorney, but it was created more than four or five years ago, it may not be recognized by financial institutions.

Reference: Rome Sentinel (July 25, 2021) “The dangers of not having a power of attorney”

 

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Aging Parents and Blended Families Create Estate Planning Challenges – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Law school teaches about estate planning and inheritance, but experience teaches about family dynamics, especially when it comes to blended families with aging parents and step-siblings. Not recognizing the realities of step-sibling relationships can put an estate plan at risk, advises the article “Could Your Aging Parents’ Estate Plan Create A Nightmare For Step-Siblings?” from Forbes. The estate plan has to be designed with realistic family dynamics in mind.

Trouble often begins when one parent loses the ability to make decisions. That is when trusts are reviewed for language addressing what should happen, if one of the trustees becomes incapacitated. This also occurs in powers of attorney, health care directives and wills. If the elderly person has been married more than once and there are step-siblings, it is important to have candid discussions. Putting all of the adult children into the mix because the parents want them to have equal involvement could be a recipe for disaster.

Here is an example: a father develops dementia at age 86 and can no longer care for himself. His younger wife has become abusive and neglectful, so much so that she has to be removed from the home. The father has two children from a prior marriage and the wife has one from a first marriage. The step-siblings have only met a few times, and do not know each other. The father’s trust listed all three children as successors, and the same for the healthcare directive. When the wife is removed from the home, the battle begins.

The same thing can occur with a nuclear family but is more likely to occur with blended families. Here are some steps adult children can take to protect the whole family:

While parents are still competent, ask who they would want to take over, if they became disabled and cannot manage their finances. If it is multiple children and they do not get along, address the issue and create the necessary documents with an estate planning attorney.

Plan for the possibility that one or both parents may lose the ability to make decisions about money and health in the future.

If possible, review all the legal documents, so you have a complete understanding of what is going to happen in the case of incapacity or death. What are the directions in the trust, and who are the successor trustees? Who will have to take on these tasks, and how will they be accomplished?

If there are any questions, a family meeting with the estate planning attorney is in order. Most experienced estate planning attorneys have seen just about every situation you can imagine and many that you cannot. They should be able to give your family guidance, even connecting you with a social worker who has experience in blended families, if the problems seem unresolvable.

Reference: Forbes (June 28, 2021) “Could Your Aging Parents’ Estate Plan Create A Nightmare For Step-Siblings?”

 

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