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

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “What does becoming someone’s ‘power of attorney’ mean?” explains that a power of attorney (POA) is a legal document through which a principal states that his or her trusted agent may act on his or her behalf and for their benefit.

A power of attorney is usually centered on addressing the principal’s financial matters, such as banking, paying taxes and selling or buying property.

A power of attorney can be “springing,” so that it becomes effective only when the principal becomes incapacitated. A springing POA provides that an agent cannot act, until the principal is determined to be incapacitated based on the criteria listed in the POA.

The “springing POA” frequently says the determination of incapacity will be made by the principal’s spouse and a licensed physician, or two licensed physicians.

There is also what is known as a medical power of attorney or living will. This is a legal document through which a principal authorizes an agent to make medical decisions for him or her, when they are incapable of making the decisions for themselves.

In either event, the agent does not become personally responsible for the financial expenses incurred by the principal, unless the agent agrees to take such responsibility in his/her individual capacity.

It is, therefore, important to execute documents as an agent and indicate you are doing so as an agent.

For example, you, Jim Smith, would sign for principal Mary Smith as follows: “Mary Smith, by Jim Smith, attorney-in-fact,” or “Jim Smith, as agent for Mary Smith, under power of attorney.”

When signing a contract with respect to nursing home care, be wary of agreeing to individually be the “responsible party.” That term may be defined to assign additional obligations, meaning being responsible for the bill.

Remember to sign everything as agent under the power of attorney.

Reference: nj.com (April 12, 2022) “What does becoming someone’s ‘power of attorney’ mean?”

 

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Do Single People Need Estate Planning? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

In evaluating your needs for estate planning, look at what might happen if you die intestate – that is, without a last will and testament. Your assets will likely have to go through the probate process, which means they will be distributed by the court according to the state intestate succession laws, says Hood County News’ recent article entitled “Even ‘singles’ need estate plans.”

Even if you do not have children, you may have a few nephews or nieces—or children of cousins or friends— to whom you would like to leave some of your assets. This can include automobiles, collectibles and family memorabilia. However, if everything you own goes through probate, there is no guarantee that these individuals will end up with what you wanted them to have.

If you want to leave something to family members or close friends, you will need to say this in your will. However, you also may want to provide support to one or more charitable organizations. You can just name these charities in your will. However, there may be options that could provide you with more benefits.

One option is a charitable remainder trust. With this option, you would transfer appreciated assets – such as stocks, mutual funds or other securities – into an irrevocable trust. The trustee, whom you have named (note that you could serve as trustee yourself) can then sell the assets at full market value, avoiding the capital gains taxes you would have to pay if you sold them yourself, outside a trust. If you itemize, you may be able to claim a charitable deduction on your taxes. The trust can purchase income-producing assets with the proceeds and provide you with an income stream for the rest of your life. At your death, the remaining trust assets will pass to the charities you have named.

There is also a third entity that is part of your estate plans: you. Everyone should make arrangements to protect their interests. However, without an immediate family, you need to be especially mindful of your financial and health care decisions. That is why, as part of your estate planning, you may want to include these two documents: durable power of attorney and a health care proxy.

A durable power of attorney allows you to name a person to manage your finances, if you become incapacitated. This is especially important for anyone who does not have a spouse. If you become incapacitated, your health care proxy (health care surrogate or medical power of attorney) lets you name another person to legally make health care decisions for you, if you cannot do so yourself.

Reference: Hood County News (Dec. 17, 2021) “Even ‘singles’ need estate plans”

 

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Does an Elder Orphan Need an Estate Plan? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Estate planning for the future is even more important for elder orphans than for those with a spouse or family members, according to this recent article “Savvy Senior: How to get help as an elder orphan” from The Virginia Gazette. There is no one single solution, but there are steps to take to protect your estate, health and provide for long-term care.

Start with the essential estate planning documents. These documents will protect you and ensure that your wishes are followed, if you become seriously ill or when you die. These documents include:

A durable Power of Attorney to designate someone to handle financial matters in the event of incapacity.

An Advanced Health Care Directive, including a Living Will, to tell your health care provider what kind of care you want if you become incapacitated.

A Health Care Power of Attorney, naming a person of your choice to make medical decisions on your behalf, if you are unable to do so.

A Will to direct how you want your property and assets to be distributed upon your death and to name an Executor who will be in charge of your estate.

Your best option to prepare these documents is an experienced estate planning attorney. Trying to do it yourself is risky. Each state has its own laws for these documents to be valid. If the documents are not accepted, the court could declare your will invalid and your directions will not be followed.

People with families typically name a responsible adult child as their power of attorney for finances, as executor or for health care decisions. If you do not have adult children, you may ask a trusted friend or colleague. Name a person who is younger than you, organized and responsible and who will likely be available and willing to service.

If the person you name as executor lives in another state, you will need to check with your estate planning attorney to see if there are any special requirements.

If you do not have a friend or even a distant relative you feel comfortable assigning this role to, your estate planning attorney may be able to suggest alternatives, such as an aging life care manager. These professionals are trained in geriatric care and often have backgrounds in social work or nursing.

If you are reluctant to complete the legal documents mentioned above or start having them prepared and then fail to complete them, you may face some unpleasant consequences. A judge may appoint a guardian to make decisions on your behalf. This guardian is likely to be a complete stranger to you. They will be legally empowered to make all decisions for you regarding your health care, end-of-life care and even your burial and funeral services.

Unless you are comfortable with a court-appointed person making health care and other decisions for you, call an estate planning attorney and start making plans for the future.

Reference: The Virginia Gazette (April 1, 2022) “Savvy Senior: How to get help as an elder orphan”

 

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Taking Care of Dying Parent’s Financial Affairs Can Be Challenging – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

It is not uncommon for adult children to have to face a parent’s decline and a stay in hospice at the end of their life. The children are tasked with trying to prepare for his passing. This includes how to handle his financial matters.

Seniors Matter’s recent article entitled “How do I handle my father’s financial matters now that he’s in hospice?” says that caring for a sick family member is a challenging and emotional time. Because of this major task, it is easy to put financial considerations on the back burner. Nonetheless, it is important to address a few key issues.

If a family member is terminally ill or admitted to hospice – and you are able to do so – it may be a good idea to start by helping to take inventory of your family member’s assets and liabilities. A clear idea of where their assets are and what they have is a great starting point to help you prepare and be in a better position to manage the estate.

An inventory may include any and all of the following:

  • Real estate
  • Bank accounts
  • Cars, boats and other vehicles
  • Stocks and bonds
  • Life insurance
  • Retirement plans (such as a 401(k), a traditional IRA, a Roth IRA and a SEP IRA);
  • Wages and other income
  • Business interests
  • Intellectual property; and
  • Any debts, liabilities and judgments.

Next, find out what, if any, estate planning documents may be in place. This includes a will, powers of attorney, trusts, a healthcare directive and a living will. You will need to find copies.

This is hard to do while a loved on is dying, but it can make the aftermath easier and less stressful.

Reference: Seniors Matter (Feb. 22, 2022) “How do I handle my father’s financial matters now that he’s in hospice?”

 

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Who Is the Best Choice for Power of Attorney? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Picking a person to serve as your Power of Attorney is an extremely important part of your estate plan, although it is often treated like an afterthought once the will and trust documents are completed. Naming a POA needs to be given the same serious consideration as creating a will, as discussed in this recent article “Avoid powers of attorney mistakes” from Medical Economics.

Choosing the wrong person to act on your behalf as your Power of Attorney (“POA”) could lead to a host of unintended consequences, leading to financial disaster. If the same person has been named your POA for healthcare, you and your family could be looking at a double-disaster. What’s more, if the same person is also a beneficiary, the potential for conflict and self-dealing gets even worse.

The Power of Attorney is a fiduciary, meaning they are required to put your interests and the interest of the estate ahead of their own. To select a POA to manage your financial life, it should be someone who you trust will always put your interests first, is good at managing money and has a track record of being responsible. Spouses are typically chosen for POAs, but if your spouse is poor at money management, or if your marriage is new or on shaky ground, it may be better to consider an alternate person.

If the wrong person is named a POA, a self-dealing agent could change beneficiaries, redirect portfolio income to themselves, or completely undo your investment portfolio.

The person you name as a healthcare POA could protect the quality of your life and ensure that your remaining years are spent with good care and in comfort. However, the opposite could also occur. Your healthcare POA is responsible for arranging for your healthcare. If the healthcare POA is a beneficiary, could they hasten your demise by choosing a substandard nursing facility or failing to take you to medical appointments to get their inheritance? It has happened.

Most POAs, both healthcare and financial, are not evil characters like we see in the movies, but often incompetence alone can lead to a negative outcome.

How can you protect yourself? First, know what you are empowering your POAs to do. A boilerplate POA limits your ability to make decisions about who may do what tasks on your behalf. Work with your estate planning attorney to create a POA for your needs. Do you want one person to manage your day-to-day personal finances, while another is in charge of your investment portfolio? Perhaps you want a third person to be in charge of selling your home and distributing your personal possessions, if you have to move into a nursing home.

If someone, a family member, or a spouse, simply presents you with POA documents and demands you sign them, be suspicious. Your POA should be created by you and your estate planning attorney to achieve your wishes for care in case of incapacity.

Different grown children might do better with different tasks. If your trusted, beloved daughter is a nurse, she may be in a better position to manage your healthcare than another sibling. If you have two adult children who work together well and are respected and trusted, you might want to make them co-agents to take care of you.

Your estate planning attorney has seen all kinds of family situations concerning POAs for finances and healthcare. Ask their advice and do not hesitate to share your concerns. They will be able to help you come up with a solution to protect you, your estate and your family.

Reference: Medical Economics (Feb. 3, 2022) “Avoid powers of attorney mistakes”

 

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Write a Letter of Instruction for Loved Ones – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

A letter of intent is frequently recommended for parents of disabled children to share information for when the parent dies. However, letters of intent or a letter of instruction can also be a helpful resource for executors, says the article “Planning Head: For detailed instructions consider a letter of instruction” from The Mercury. This is especially valuable, if the executor does not know the decedent or their family members very well.

For disabled children, legal documents address specific issues and are not necessarily the right place to include personal information about the child or the parent’s desires for the child’s future. Estate plans need more information, especially for a minor child.

The goal is to create a document to make clear what the parents want for the child after they pass, whether that occurs early or late in the child’s life.

For a disabled child, the first questions to be addressed in the estate plan concern who will care for the child if the parent dies or becomes incapacitated, where will the child live and what funds will be available for their care. Once those matters are resolved, however, there are more questions about the child’s wants and needs.

The letter of intent can answer questions about the special information only a parent knows and is helpful in future decisions about their care and living situation.

The letter of intent concerning an estate should also include information about wishes for a funeral or burial and contain everything from directions for the music list for a ceremony to the writing on the headstone.

Once the letter of intent is created, the next question is, where should you put it so it is secure and can be accessed when it is needed?

Do not put it in a bank safe deposit box. This is a common error for estate planning documents as well. The executor may only access the contents of the safe deposit box after letters of administration have been issued. This happens after the funeral, and sometimes long after the funeral. By then, it will be too late for any instructions.

Keeping estate planning documents in a safe deposit box presents other problems. If the bank seals the safe deposit box on notification of the owner’s death, the executor will not be able to proceed. This can sometimes be prevented by having additional owners on the safe deposit box, if permitted by the bank . Any additional owners will also need to know where the key is located and be able get access to it.

The better solution is to keep all important documents including wills, financial power of attorney, health care powers, living wills, or health care directives, insurance forms, cemetery deeds, information for the family’s estate planning attorney, financial advisor, and CPA, etc., in one location known to the trusted person who will need access to the documents. That person will need a set of keys to the house. If they are kept in a fire and waterproof safe in the house; they will also need the keys to the safe.

If the parents move or move the documents, they will need to remember to tell the trusted person where these documents have moved. Otherwise, a lot of work will have been for naught.

Reference: The Mercury (Jan. 19, 2022) “Planning Head: For detailed instructions consider a letter of instruction”

 

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How Do I Plan with a Special Needs Child? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

The three main structures a family should put in place to provide future protection for their child relate to money management, self-care and housing, says CNBC’s recent article entitled “If you have a child with special needs, here’s how to plan for their life after you pass.”

Money Management: If the child gets government benefits, such as Supplemental Security Income or Medicaid, parents will usually establish a special needs trust to shield assets to allow the child continued access to those benefits. A trustee oversees the funds and other trust provisions not under the child’s control.

Life Insurance. This is the cheapest way to fund a trust. That is because you need to know what is left over from your estate to care for the child, and this creates that certain bucket of money.

Self-Care: Parents must arrange the services their child will need to live independently or semi-independently, which may be overseen by a court-appointed conservator (or guardian). This person makes all decisions regarding an individual’s financial and/or personal affairs. In the alterative, decisions may be made by a person with power of attorney, as well as the individual.

Parents may want to write a “letter of intent,” which is a guide for those who will care for the child in the future. This letter can cover family history, medical care, benefits, daily routines, diet, behavior management, residential arrangements, education, social life, career, religion and end-of-life decisions, according to the Autism Society.

Housing: With respect to future housing for the child, location is more important than the house itself. Parents should consider options beyond keeping their loved one in the family home. It is more important to look at the individual and the interests and supports they might require. Parents may think of retiring to a community that supports the interests of the child. There is a trend toward more community-based living. State-administered Medicaid HCBS waiver programs allow people with disabilities to live in a house or apartment. The state, in turn, provides staffing for a group of similar residents. Sometimes, a group of families will purchase a collection of houses or condominiums. Also, people are rehabbing houses for roommate living, resulting in neighborhoods of people with special needs.

It is critical to work with specialists in this type of planning, such as an experienced estate planning or elder law attorney.

Reference: CNBC (Dec. 6, 2021) “If you have a child with special needs, here’s how to plan for their life after you pass”

 

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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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Is Estate Tax Exemption Going to Change? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

In 2022, the estate and gift tax exemption increases from $11.7 million in 2021 to $12.06 million per individual, according to new inflation-adjusted numbers from the IRS. The gift tax annual exclusion also increases, from $15,000 to $16,000. The IRS announced these numbers, as well as tax brackets, standard deductions and more, as reported in the article “New Higher Estate And Gift Tax Limits for 2022: Couples Can Pass On $720,000 More Tax Free” from Forbes.

The estate tax is 40% on the biggest estates, but wealthy individuals use legal strategies, like transferring wealth to heirs while they are living, making big gifts and also making multiple $16,000 annual exclusion gifts that do not count against the $12 million lifetime limit.

In 2022, a wealthy person may leave $12.06 to heirs with no federal estate or gift tax. A married couple may leave $24.12 million. If by some chance a couple has maxed out their lifetime gifts, this latest increase means they have the option to give away another $720,000 in 2022.

A series of annual exclusion gifts of $16,000 can add up, especially when they are done in a planned method over an extended period of time. Since these gifts do not count toward the $12 million amount, they are especially valuable for managing estate tax liability.

Estate sizes may also be reduced by making direct payments for medical and tuition expenses, for as many people as desired, with no gift or tax consequences. There is no limit on the amount to be paid, as long as these payments are made directly to the institution.

There are any number of ways to take money out of an estate. These include outright gifts, loans to family members and special trusts. A variety of trusts are created to preserve family wealth, from simple to complex trusts used to extend wealth across many generations.

In addition to planning for the increased numbers for 2022, this is also the time to check on basic estate planning documents and be certain they are up to date. These include a will, any kind of revocable living trust, a durable power of attorney, a healthcare directive and a living will. If the family includes a special needs member or a disabled individual, there are other planning methods to be discussed with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Despite the good news of these increases, the $12 million estate tax exemption will be halved at the start of 2026. The historical high exemption was created under President Donald J. Trump by the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which temporarily doubled the estate tax exemption from 2018 to 2025. While there was a lot of discussion about the Infrastructure Bill and funding through estate taxes, any provisions impacting estate planning were dropped before the bill was passed.

One more reason to gift now: state estate taxes and inheritance taxes are still alive and well in many states. If you live in a state with these taxes, the state tax bite could be just as bad, if not worse, than the federal tax.

Reference: Forbes (Nov. 11, 2021) “New Higher Estate And Gift Tax Limits for 2022: Couples Can Pass On $720,000 More Tax Free”

 

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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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