Don’t Neglect a Plan for Your Pet During the Pandemic – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

If you have a pet, chances are you have worried about what would happen to your furry companion if something were to happen to you. However, worrying and having an actual plan are two very different things, as discussed at a Council of Aging webinar. That is the subject of the article “COA speakers urge pet owners to plan for their animal’s future” that appeared in The Harvard Press.

It is stressful to worry about something happening, but it is not that difficult to put something in place. After you have got a plan for yourself, your children and your property, add a plan for your pet.

Start by considering who would really commit to caring for your pet, if you had a long-term illness or in the event of your unexpected passing. Have a discussion with them. Do not assume that they will take care of your pet. A casual agreement is not enough. The owner needs to be sure that the potential caretaker understands the degree of commitment and responsibility involved.

If you should need to receive home health care, do not also assume that your health care provider will be willing to take care of your pet. It is best to find a pet sitter or friend who can care for the pet before the need arises. Write down the pet’s information: the name and contact info for the vets, the brand of food, medication and any behavioral quirks.

There are legal documents that can be put into place to protect a pet. Your will can contain general directions about how the pet should be cared for, and a certain amount of money can be set aside in a will, although that method may not be legally enforceable. Owners cannot leave money directly to a pet, but a pet trust can be created to hold money to be used for the benefit of the pet, under the management of the trustee. The trust can also be accessed while the owner is still living. Therefore, if the owner becomes incapacitated, the pet’s care will not be interrupted.

An estate planning attorney will know the laws concerning pet trusts in your state. Not all states permit them, although many do.

A pet trust is also preferable to a mention in a will, because the caretaker will have to wait until the will is probated to receive funds to care for your pet. The cost of veterinary services, food, medication, boarding or pet sitters can add up quickly, as pet owners know.

A durable power of attorney can also be used to make provisions for the care of a pet. The person in that role has the authority to access and use the owner’s financial resources to care for the animal.

The legal documents will not contain information about the pet, so it is a good idea to provide info on the pet’s habits, medications, etc., in a separate document. Choose the caretaker wisely—your pet’s well-being will depend upon it!

Reference: The Harvard Press (May 14, 2020) “COA speakers urge pet owners to plan for their animal’s future”

 

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Should I Have an Advance Directive in the Pandemic? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Advance directive is a term that includes living wills and health care proxies or powers of attorney. These are legal documents we all should have. A living will allows you to tell your family and doctors the types of medical care you want at the end of your life. Health care proxies or powers of attorney let you name someone to make medical decisions for you, if you cannot communicate.

WTOP’s recent article entitled “Advance medical directives vital during COVID-19 pandemic” says that you need both because not all medical situations will trigger a living will. In fact, a living will is only really applicable, if you have an end stage process, a persistent vegetative state, or a terminal illness. People often run into a situation where they have a health event, but it is not something that is going to end in their death.

An estate planning attorney can draw up advance directives, when they are creating your estate plan.

When selecting the individual to grant the power to make decisions for you, consider who would be most capable of advocating for what you want, rather than what they, other family members or a medical provider might want. You should also name a backup in the event your first choice cannot serve and make sure these advocates understand your wishes. Give copies of the documents to them and go through what you want.

Your attorney will follow your state’s rules about how to make these documents valid, such as having witnesses sign or getting the paperwork notarized.

Next, keep the originals in a safe place at home, along with your will, and tell your family where to locate them. Your physician and attorney should also have copies.

Tell your doctor to add the forms in your electronic health record. That way, other medical providers can access it in an emergency. You should also carry a card in your wallet that has your health care agent’s name and contact information, as well as where you keep the originals and copies.

If your choices could cause stress for your family, consider including a note explaining your thinking. Even if they disagree with your decisions, it is more comforting to hear it directly from you, rather than the person you named to act on your behalf.

Reference: WTOP (June 1, 2020) “Advance medical directives vital during COVID-19 pandemic”

 

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How Do I Avoid the Three Biggest Estate Planning Mistakes? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

After you die, your last will and testament must be approved by the local probate court. The judge will determine if the document is the last will of the deceased, review the inventory of the estate and confirm who will administer the estate proceeds. It is known as “executing” a will.

Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “Avoid these 3 estate-planning mistakes and make probate cheaper and easier for your loved ones” discusses some mistakes that people make and how to avoid them.

  1. You do not have a will, or you have a will that was written in another state. You also should have a current will. Life changes, and you need a will for where you live in now. Residency is defined differently in each state, and an out-of-state will delays the probate process, because it fails to satisfy state requirements. Worse yet, it may even be declared invalid.

If there is no will, the deceased is said to have died “intestate,” and his estate must go through probate. However, an administrator will be named by the judge to distribute assets, according to state law. It can be a lengthy and often costly process.

Some people do not want to hire an attorney to create their estate plan or write a will, because they believe it is too expense or they never get around to doing it. However, if you die without a will, the legal costs will be even more and that will be paid by your estate—that decreases what’s left to give to your heirs.

  1. Mixing up estate taxes with probate. Your estate may be too small to be subject to federal tax, if it is less than the $11.58 million exemption. However, you still will be subject to probate and possibly a state estate tax. Therefore, you still need an estate plan.
  2. Disregarding easy things to keep some assets from probate. Most states have a “mini-probate” that is expedited for small estates. With this process, heirs may have fewer fees, less paperwork and shorter waiting.

You can also create a living trust (revocable trust) to avoid probate altogether, if done correctly. This is a legal vehicle to which all of your assets pass upon your death. Ask an estate planning lawyer to help you create a trust, because they can be complicated. Whether you need a trust, a will, or both, an experienced estate planning attorney has worked through a variety of situations and will have sound and creative ideas. Investing time and money with an attorney makes life easier for you now and for your family later.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (Feb. 18, 2020) “Avoid these 3 estate-planning mistakes and make probate cheaper and easier for your loved ones”

 

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What You Need to Know about Drafting Your Will – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

A last will and testament is just one of the legal documents that you should have in place to help your loved ones know what your wishes are, if you cannot say so yourself, advises CNBC’s recent article entitled, “Here’s what you need to know about creating a will.” In this pandemic, the coronavirus may have you thinking more about your mortality.

Despite COVID-19, it is important to ponder what would happen to your bank accounts, your home, your belongings or even your minor children, if you are no longer here. You should prepare a will, if you do not already have one. It is also important to update your will, if it is been written.

If you do not have a valid will, your property will pass on to your heirs by law. These individuals may or may not be who you would have provided for in a will. If you pass away with no will —dying intestate — a state court decides who gets your assets and, if you have children, a judge says who will care for them. As a result, if you have an unmarried partner or a favorite charity but have no legal no will, your assets may not go to them.

The courts will typically pass on assets to your closest blood relatives, despite the fact that it would not have been your first choice.

Your will is just one part of a complete estate plan. Putting a plan in place for your assets helps ensure that at your death, your wishes will be carried out and that family fights and hurt feelings do not make for destroyed relationships.

There are some assets that pass outside of the will, such as retirement accounts, 401(k) plans, pensions, IRAs and life insurance policies.

Therefore, the individual designated as beneficiary on those accounts will receive the money, despite any directions to the contrary in your will. If there is no beneficiary listed on those accounts, or the beneficiary has already passed away, the assets automatically go into probate—the process by which all of your debt is paid off and then the remaining assets are distributed to heirs.

If you own a home, be certain that you know the way in which it should be titled. This will help it end up with those you intend, since laws vary from state to state.

Ask an estate planning attorney in your area — to ensure familiarity with state laws—for help with your will and the rest of your estate plan.

Reference: CNBC (June 1, 2020) “Here’s what you need to know about creating a will”

 

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Update Will at These 12 Times in Your Life – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Estate planning lawyers hear it all the time—people meaning to update their will, but somehow never getting around to actually getting it done. The only group larger than the ones who mean to “someday,” are the ones who do not think they ever need to update their documents, says the article “12 Different Times When You Should Update Your Will” from Kiplinger. The problems become abundantly clear when people die, and survivors learn that their will is so out-of-date that it creates a world of problems for a grieving family.

There are some wills that do stand the test of time, but they are far and few between. Families undergo all kinds of changes, and those changes should be reflected in the will. Here are one dozen times in life when wills need to be reviewed:

Welcoming a child to the family. The focus is on naming a guardian and a trustee to oversee their finances. The will should be flexible to accommodate additional children in the future.

Divorce is a possibility. Do not wait until the divorce is underway to make changes. Do it beforehand. If you die before the divorce is finalized, your spouse will have marital rights to your property. Once you file for divorce, in many states you are not permitted to change your will, until the divorce is finalized. Make no moves here, however, without the advice of your attorney.

Your divorce has been finalized. If you did not do it before, update your will now. Do not neglect updating beneficiaries on life insurance and any other accounts that may have named your ex as a beneficiary.

When your child(ren) marry. You may be able to mitigate the lack of a prenuptial agreement, by creating trusts in your will, so anything you leave your child will not be considered a marital asset, if his or her marriage goes south.

Your beneficiary has problems with drugs or money. Money left directly to a beneficiary is at risk of being attached by creditors or dissolving into a drug habit. Updating your will to includes trusts that allow a trustee to only distribute funds under optimal circumstances protects your beneficiary and their inheritance.

Named executor or beneficiary dies. Your old will may have a contingency plan for what should happen if a beneficiary or executor dies, but you should probably revisit the plan. If a named executor dies and you do not update the will, then what happens if the second executor dies?

A young family member grows up. Most people name a parent as their executor, then a spouse or trusted sibling. Two or three decades go by. An adult child may now be ready to take on the task of handling your estate.

New laws go into effect. In recent months, there have been many big changes to the law that impact estate planning, from the SECURE Act to the CARES act. Ask your estate planning attorney every few years, if there have been new laws that are relevant to your estate plan.

An inheritance or a windfall. If you come into a significant amount of money, your tax liability changes. You will want to update your will, so you can do efficient tax planning as part of your estate plan.

Can’t find your will? If you cannot find the original will, then you need a new will. Your estate planning attorney will make sure that your new will has language that states revokes all prior wills.

Buying property in another country or moving to another country. Some countries have reciprocity with America. However, transferring property to an heir in one country may be delayed, if the will needs to be probated in another country. Ask your estate planning attorney, if you need wills for each country in which you own property.

Family and friends are enemies. Friends have no rights when it comes to your estate plan. Therefore, if families and friends are fighting, the family member will win. If you suspect that your family may push back to any bequests to friends, consider adding a “No Contest” clause to disinherit family members who try to elbow your friends out of the estate.

Reference: Kiplinger (May 26, 2020) “12 Different Times When You Should Update Your Will”

 

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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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What Exactly Does an Executor Do? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

The job of the executor is an important one. The executor has a fiduciary responsibility to manage the assets and debts of the decedent and carry out instructions documented in his last will and testament. The executor is also responsible for distributing assets, explains the article “A Step-by-Step Guide to Being an Executor” from Kiplinger. If there are any claims against the estate, the executor might be facing personal responsibility, if funds are not handled properly.

The learning curve could be steep, especially if the executor does not know a lot about the person’s finances and possessions, or is new to the tasks of managing money, corralling heirs or the legal processes that occur after someone dies. If the decedent didn’t tell the executor where his records and important papers are kept, things can get even more challenging.

Here is what an executor needs to know, preferably before her services are needed:

Get informed and up to speed. Read the will and see if the decedent’s intentions are clear. That is not always the case. When one man became executor of his mother’s will, he and his sister had two different interpretations about what their mother wanted to happen to the family home. While they wrangled out the issue, there were property taxes to be paid and maintenance costs. A letter of direction explaining things clearly would have prevented many problems.

Sit down and talk about it. It is a kindness to heirs to share information and intentions, while you are still alive. Discuss the will with the immediate family to avoid any surprises or misunderstandings. Consider having an annual conference with children to ensure that they understand the estate, the will and what to expect. If you have an argumentative family, doing this in advance will not guarantee smooth sailing, but it may lessen the fighting.

Make an inventory. Managing an estate can be a long process, with many curves along the way. You will make it easier, if you create a list of all assets, accounts, debts and liabilities. Make a note of where tax records and insurance policies can be found. Include a list of all online accounts and digital assets, plus the names of your professional advisors, including the estate planning lawyer and CPA. Ideally, review the list with your executor.

Should the executor change the locks? In a word, yes. Two kinds of theft happen while people are attending funeral and memorial services. Some family members will outright take items and thieves may break into empty homes. Remove anything of value and have a reputable locksmith install good locks. If the executor is technically inclined, an inexpensive videocam system would be a good idea.

Get copies of the death certificate. Request multiple copies. Some institutions will require originals with a raised seal, while others will work with a copy or a scanned document. Better to have a few more than you need, so you do not have to keep buying new ones.

Speak with an estate planning attorney. There are legal forms and tax forms that will need to be prepared. In some states, probate is straightforward. In other states, it is a complex and time consuming process. You do not need to go it alone.

Open an estate account. The estate is a legal entity and requires a separate tax ID. The executor needs to apply for a separate tax ID, and then can use that to open a bank account. The estate funds the bank account, which is used to pay bills and deposit proceeds from assets.

Distribute assets. The executor is responsible for keeping heirs updated. Heirs receive assets, as designated in the will. If there are collections or a home, they will need to be professionally assessed, before they can be sold.

Reference: Kiplinger (May 12, 2020) “A Step-by-Step Guide to Being an Executor”

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How Does a Spendthrift Trust Protect Heirs from Themselves? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

This is not an unusual question for most estate planning lawyers—and in most cases, the children are not bad. They just lack self-control or have a history of making poor decisions. Fortunately, there are solutions, as described in a recent article titled “Estate Planning: What to do to protect trusts from a spendthrift” from NWI.com.

What needs to happen? Plan to provide for the child’s well-being but keep the actual assets out of their control. The best answer is the use of a trust. By leaving money to an heir in a trust, a responsible party can be in charge of the money. That person is known as the “trustee.”

People sometimes get nervous when they hear the word trust, because they think that a trust is only for wealthy people or that creating a trust must be very expensive. Not necessarily. In many states, a trust can be created to benefit an heir in the last will and testament. The will may be a little longer, but a trust can be created without the expense of an additional document. Your estate planning attorney will know how to create a trust, in accordance with the laws of your state.

In this scenario, the trust is created in the will, known as a testamentary trust. Instead of leaving money to Joe Smith directly, the money (or other asset) is left to the John Smith Testamentary Trust for the benefit of Joe Smith.

The terms of the trust are defined in the appropriate article in the will and can be created to suit your wishes. For instance, you can decide to distribute the money over a three or a thirty-year period. Funds could be distributed monthly, to create an income stream. They could also be distributed only when certain benchmarks are reached, such after a full year of employment has occurred. This is known as an incentive trust.

The opposite can be true: distributions can be withheld, if the heir is engaged in behavior you want to discourage, like gambling or using drugs.

If the funding for the trust will come from proceeds from a life insurance policy, it may be necessary to have your estate planning attorney contact the insurance company to be sure that the insurance company will permit a testamentary trust to be the beneficiary of the life insurance and avoid probate altogether.

Not all insurance companies will permit this. There may be some other changes that need to occur for this to work and be in compliance with your state’s laws. However, your estate planning attorney will be able to resolve the issue for you.

Reference: NWI.com (May 17, 2020) “Estate Planning: What to do to protect trusts from a spendthrift”

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What Happens when Mom Refuses to Create an Estate Plan? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

This is a tough scenario. It happens more often than you would think. Someone owns a home, investment accounts and an inheritance, but does not want to have an estate plan. They know they need to do something, but keep putting it off—until they die, and the family is left with an expensive and stressful mess. A recent article titled “How to Get a Loved One to Visit an Estate Planning Attorney Before It’s Too Late” from Kiplinger, explains how to help make things right.

Most people put off seeing an estate planning attorney, because they are afraid of death. They may also be overwhelmed by the thought of how much work is involved. They are also worried about what it all might cost. However, if there is no estate plan, the costs will be far higher for the family.

How do you get the person to understand that they need to move forward?

Talk with the financial professionals the person already uses and trusts, like a CPA or financial advisor. Ask them for a referral to an estate planning attorney they think would be a good fit with the person who does not have an estate plan. It may be easier to hear this message from a CPA, than from an adult child.

Work with that professional to promote the person, usually an older family member, to get comfortable with the idea to talk about their wishes and values with the estate planning attorney. Offer to attend the meeting, or to facilitate the video conference, to make the person feel more comfortable.

An experienced estate planning attorney will have worked with reluctant people before. They will know how to put the older person at ease and explore their concerns. When the conversation is pleasant and productive, the person may understand that the process will not be as challenging and that there will be a lot of help along the way.

If there is no trusted team of professionals, then offer to be a part of any conversations with the estate planning attorney to make the introductory discussion easier. Share your own experience in estate planning, and tread lightly.

Trying to force a person to engage in estate planning with a heavy hand, almost always ends up in a stubborn refusal. A gentle approach will always be more successful. Explain how part of the estate plan includes planning for medical decisions while the person is living and is not just about distributing their assets. You should be firm, consistent and kind.

Explaining what their family members will need to go through if there is no will, may or may not have an impact. Some people do not care, and may simply shrug and say, “It will be their problem, not mine.” Consider what or who matters to the person. What if they could leave assets for a favorite grandchild to go to college? That might be more motivating.

One other thing to consider: if the person has an estate plan and it is out of date, that may be just as bad as not having an estate plan at all, especially when the person has been divorced and remarried. Just as many people refuse to have an estate plan, many people fail to update important documents, when they remarry. More than a few spouses come to estate planning attorney’s offices, when a loved one’s life insurance policy is going to their prior spouse. It is too late to make any changes. A health care directive could also name a former brother-in-law to make important medical decisions. During a time of great duress, it is a bad time to learn that the formerly close in-law, who is now a sworn enemy, is the only one who can speak with doctors. Do not procrastinate, if any of these issues are present.

Reference: Kiplinger (May 11, 2020) “How to Get a Loved One to Visit an Estate Planning Attorney Before It’s Too Late”

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