Estate Planning Blog Articles

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Control of Assets a Key Issue in Deciding on a Trust

Any trust created while the person, known as the “grantor,” is living, is known as a “living trust.” However, the term is also used interchangeably with “revocable trusts,” which can be changed according to the grantor’s wishes. During the lifetime of the grantor, as explained in the recent article “Control of Assets a Key Issue in Deciding on a Trust” from FED Week, that person can be the trustee as well as the beneficiary. Control is retained over the trust and the assets it contains.

Trusts are used in estate plans as a way to avoid probate. Equally importantly, they can provide for an easier transition if the grantor becomes incapacitated. The co-trustee or successor trustee steps in to manage assets, and the process is relatively seamless. The family, in most cases, will not have to apply for conservatorship, an expensive and sometimes unnerving process. Within the privacy afforded a trust, the control and management of assets is far less stressful, assuming that the trust has been funded and all assets have been placed properly within the trust beforehand.

Naming a successor trustee so the grantor may remain in control during his or her lifetime is an easier concept for most people. However, adding a co-trustee rather than a successor may be a wiser move. A successor trustee requires the grantor, if still living, to formally resign and allow the successor trustee to take control of the trust and its assets.

If a co-trustee is named, he or she may step into control instantly, if the grantor becomes incapacitated.

Trusts fall into two basic categories:

Irrevocable Trusts—A permanent arrangement in which assets going into the trust are out of control of anyone but the trustee. Giving up this control comes with benefits: the assets within the trust may not be tapped by creditors and they are not considered part of the estate, also lowering tax liability. Irrevocable trusts are generally used to protect loved ones, who are named as beneficiaries.

Revocable Trusts—The grantor retains control over trust assets and may collect investment income from assets in the trust. If the grantor decides to have the assets back in his or her personal accounts, they can be reclaimed into his or her own name.

The revocable trust protects the grantor against incompetency, as the successor trustee or co-trustee can take over management of trust assets and assets pass to designated recipients without having to go through probate.

Determining which of these trusts is best for your family depends on many different factors. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to learn how trusts might work within your unique estate plan.

Reference: FED Week (Jan. 21, 2021) “Control of Assets a Key Issue in Deciding on a Trust”

How to Be an Effective Advocate for Elderly Parents

Family caregivers must also understand their loved one’s wishes for care and quality of life. They must also be sure those wishes are respected. Further, it means helping them manage financial and legal matters, and making sure they receive appropriate services and treatments when they need them.

AARP’s recent article entitled “How to Be an Effective Advocate for Aging Parents” says if the thought of being an advocate for others seems overwhelming, take it easy. You probably already have the skills you need to be effective. You may just need to develop and apply them in new ways. AARP gives us the five most important attributes.

  1. Observation. Caregivers can be too busy or tired, to see small changes, but even slightest shifts in a person’s abilities, health, moods, safety needs, or wants may be a sign of a much more serious medical or mental health issue. You should also monitor the services your family member is getting. You can take notes on your observations about your loved one to track any changes over time.
  2. Organization. It’s hard to keep track of every aspect of a caregiving plan, but as an advocate, you must manage your loved one’s caregiving team. This includes creating task lists and organizing the paperwork associated with health, legal, and financial matters. You’ll need to have easy access to all legal documents, like powers of attorney for finances and health care. If needed, you might take an organizing course or work with a professional organizer. There are also many caregiving apps. You should also, make digital copies of key documents, such as medication lists, medical history, powers of attorney and living wills, so you can access them from anywhere.
  3. Communication. This may be the most important attribute. You need communication for building relationships with other caregivers, family members, attorneys and healthcare professionals. Be prepared for meetings with lawyers, medical professionals and other providers.
  4. Probing. Caregivers need to gather information, so don’t be shy about it. Educate yourself about your loved one’s health conditions, finances and legal affairs. Create a list of questions for conversations with doctors and other professionals.
  5. Tenacity. Facing a dysfunctional and frustrating health care system can be discouraging. You must be tenacious. Here are a few suggestions on how to do that:
  • Set clear goals and focus on the end result you want.
  • Keep company with positive and encouraging people.
  • Heed the advice of experienced caregivers’ stories, so you understand the triumphs and the challenges.
  • Be positive and be resilient.

Reference: AARP (Sep. 24, 2020) “How to Be an Effective Advocate for Aging Parents”

The Difference between Power of Attorney and Guardianship for Elderly Parents

The primary difference between guardianship and power of attorney is in the level of decision-making power, although there are many intricacies specific to each appointment, explains Presswire’s recent article entitled “Power of Attorney and Guardianship of an Elderly Parent.”

The interactions with adult protective services, the probate court, elder law attorneys and healthcare providers can create a huge task for an agent under a power of attorney or court-appointed guardian. Children acting as agents or guardians are surprised about the degree of interference by family members who disagree with decisions.

Doctors and healthcare providers don’t always recognize the decision-making power of an agent or guardian. Guardians or agents may find themselves fighting the healthcare system because of the difference between legal capacity and medical or clinical capacity.

A family caregiver accepts a legal appointment to provide or oversee care. An agent under power of attorney isn’t appointed to do what he or she wishes. The agent must fulfill the wishes of the principal. In addition, court-appointed guardians are required to deliver regular reports to the court detailing the activities they have completed for elderly parents. Both roles must work in the best interest of the parent.

Some popular misperceptions about power of attorney and guardianship of a parent include:

  • An agent under power of attorney can make decisions that go against the wishes of the principal
  • An agent can’t be removed or fired by the principal for abuse
  • Adult protective services assumes control of family matters and gives power to the government; and
  • Guardians have a responsibility to save money for care, so family members can receive an inheritance.

Those who have a financial interest in inheritance can be upset when an agent under a power of attorney or a court-appointed guardian is appointed. Agents and guardians must make sure of the proper care for an elderly parent. A potential inheritance may be totally spent over time on care.

In truth, the objective isn’t to conserve money for family inheritances, if saving money means that a parent’s care will be in jeopardy.

Adult protective services workers will also look into cases to make certain that vulnerable elderly persons are protected—including being protected from irresponsible family members. In addition, a family member serving as an agent or family court-appointed guardian can be removed, if actions are harmful.

Agents under a medical power of attorney and court-appointed guardians have a duty to go beyond normal efforts in caring for an elderly parent or adult. They must understand the aspects of the health conditions and daily needs of the parent, as well as learning advocacy and other skills to ensure that the care provided is appropriate.

Ask an experienced elder law attorney about your family’s situation and your need for power of attorney documents with a provision for guardianship.

Reference: Presswire (Jan. 14, 2021) “Power of Attorney and Guardianship of an Elderly Parent”

Am I Named in a Will? How Would I Know?

Imagine a scenario where three brothers’ biological father passed away a decade ago. The father wasn’t married to the brothers’ mother, plus, he had another family with three children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. The father never publicly acknowledged that the three boys were his children. They’ve now heard rumors that he left them something in his will—which may or may not exist. The father’s wife has also passed away.

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “How can we find out if our father left us something in his will?” explains that a parent isn’t required to leave his or her adult children an inheritance.

If a person doesn’t leave a will when they die, the intestacy laws of the state in which he or she dies will dictate how the decedent’s property is divided.

For example, if you die without a will in Kansas, your assets will go to your closest relatives. If there were children but no spouse, the children inherit everything. If there is a spouse and descendants, the spouse inherits one-half of your intestate property, and your descendants inherit the other one-half of your intestate property.

In Illinois, if you’re married and you pass away without a will, the portion given to your spouse is based upon whether you have living descendants, such as children and grandchildren.

In New Jersey, if the decedent is survived by a spouse and children—this includes any children who are not children of the surviving spouse—the surviving spouse gets the first 25% of the intestate estate, but not less than $50,000 nor more than $200,000, plus one-half of the balance of the intestate estate. In that state, the descendants of the decedent would receive the remainder.

Note that an intestate estate doesn’t include property that’s in the joint name of the decedent and another person with rights of survivorship or payable upon death to another beneficiary. In our problem above, the issue would be whether the three boys would’ve been entitled to a percentage of the property permitted under the state intestacy statute, or under a will if you could prove there was one.

However, the time for the three boys to make a claim against their father’s estate would have been at his death. A 10-year delay is a problem. It may prevent a recovery because there are time limitations for bringing legal actions. However, they may have other claims, and there may be reasons you are not too late.

Litigation is very fact-specific, and the rules are state-specific. The boys should talk to an estate litigation attorney, if they think there are enough assets to make at it worth their while.

Reference: nj.com (Dec. 29, 2020) “How can we find out if our father left us something in his will?”

Some States Have No Estate or Inheritance Taxes

The District of Columbia already moved to reduce its exemption from $5.67 million in 2020 to $4 million for individuals who die on or after Jan. 1, 2021. A resident with a taxable estate of $10 million living in the District of Columbia will owe nearly $1 million in state estate tax, says the article “State Death Tax Hikes Loom: Where Not To Die In 2021” from Forbes. It won’t be the last change in state death taxes.

Seventeen states and D.C. levy their own inheritance or estate taxes in addition to the federal estate tax, which as of this writing is so high that it effects very few Americans. In 2021, the federal estate tax exemption is $11.7 million per person. In 2026, it will drop back to $5 million per person, with adjustments for inflation. However, that is only if nothing changes.

President Joseph Biden has already called for the federal estate tax to return to the 2009 level of $3.5 million per person. The increased tax revenue purportedly would be used to pay for the costs of fighting the “pandemic” and the “infrastructure improvements” he plans, but many believe such a move would potentially destroy family businesses, farms and ranches that drive and feed the economy in the first place. If that were not troubling enough, President Biden has threatened to eliminate the step up in basis on appreciated assets at death.

This change at the federal level is likely to push changes at the state level. States that don’t have a death tax may look at adding one as a means of increasing revenue, meaning that tax planning as a part of estate planning will become important in the near future.

States with high estate tax exemptions could reduce their state exemptions to the federal exemption, adding to the state’s income and making things simpler. Right now, there is a disconnect between the federal and the state tax exemptions, which leads to considerable confusion.

Five states have made changes in 2021, in a variety of forms. Vermont has increased the estate tax exemption from $4.25 million in 2020 to $5 million in 2021, after sitting at $2.75 million from 2011 to 2019.

Connecticut’s estate tax exemption had been $2 million for more than ten years, but in 2021 it will be $7.1 million. Connecticut has many millionaires that the state does not wish to scare away, so the Nutmeg state is keeping a $15 million cap, which would be the tax due on an estate of about $129 million.

Three states increased their exemptions because of inflation. Maine has slightly increased its exemption because of inflation to $5.9 million, up from $5.8 million in 2020. Rhode Island is at $1,595.156 in 2021, up from $1,579,922 in 2020. In New York, the exemption amount increased to $5.93 million in 2021, from $5.85 million in 2020.

The overall trend in the recent past had been towards reducing or eliminating state estate taxes. In 2018, New Jersey dropped the estate tax, but kept an inheritance tax. In 2019, Maryland added a portability provision to its estate tax, so a surviving spouse may carry over the unused predeceased spouse’s exemption amount. Most states do not have a portability provision.

Another way to grab revenue is targeting the richest estate with rate hikes, which is what Hawaii did. As of January 1, 2020, Hawaii boosted its state estate tax on estates valued at more than $10 million to 20%.

If you live in or plan to move to a state where there are state death taxes, talk with your estate planner to create a flexible estate plan that will address the current and future changes in the federal or state exemptions. Some strategies could include the use of disclaimer trusts or other estate planning techniques. While you’re at it, keep an eye on the state’s legislature for what they’re planning.

Reference: Forbes (Jan. 15, 2021) “State Death Tax Hikes Loom: Where Not To Die In 2021”

What are the Issues with COVID Vaccinations Sign-ups for Seniors?

With states across the U.S. providing the COVID-19 vaccine to people 65 and older, seniors are trying to determine how to make an appointment to receive their shots. Many government agencies ask people to make appointments online. However, website errors, overwhelmed phone lines and a collection of changing rules are frustrating seniors who are frequently less tech-savvy, may live farther from vaccination sites and are less likely to have Internet access—especially minority populations and the poor.

ABC News’ recent article entitled “Online sign-ups complicate vaccine rollout for older people” reports that almost 9.5 million seniors (16.5% of Americans 65 and older) lack internet access, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Moreover, the access is worse for minority seniors, with more than 25% of Black people, about 21% of Hispanic people and over 28% of Native Americans age 65 and older have no way to get online. Compare that with 15.5% of white seniors.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, Dr. Rebecca Parish has been saddened by the bureaucratic red tape and continued calls for help from seniors. An 83-year-old patient called her in tears, unable to navigate the online appointment system at her local drugstore. After several of these types of calls, Dr. Parish took action. She contacted Contra Costa County and acquired 500 doses to vaccinate people at a middle school in Lafayette, California. She’s also working with nonprofits to identify seniors who don’t live in nursing homes and risk falling through the cracks. All her appointments have been taken, but she’ll begin adding more when more doses are available.

Many health officials have been trying to find other solutions to ease the confusion and help senior citizens sign up, as the Trump administration asked states to make the nation’s 57.6 million seniors eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.

Some spots have discovered that simple ideas can work. For example, in Morgantown, West Virginia, county health officials used a large road construction sign to list the phone number for seniors to call to make an appointment. Some are looking at working with community groups or setting up mobile clinics for more remote populations.

Some medical systems, like UCHealth in Colorado, are trying to partner with community groups to get vaccines to underserved populations, like seniors. Local doctors are volunteering at a clinic hosted by a church that brings in the vaccine and helps build trust between health care workers and residents.

For now, UCHealth schedules appointments online, but a COVID-19 hotline is in the works because of the volume of calls from seniors. Howwever, even a Colorado health provider setting up vaccine clinics for underserved communities, Salud Family Health Centers, said their phone lines aren’t equipped to handle the number of calls they’re getting and encouraged people to go online.

Reference: ABC News (Jan. 15, 2021) “Online sign-ups complicate vaccine rollout for older people”

Can Mom Live in the Backyard?

When one Georgia senior thought about moving closer to her daughter in an Atlanta suburb, she realized she couldn’t afford to buy a home.

Therefore, her daughter researched building a cottage in her own backyard. This fall, they made a deposit on a Craftsman-style design by a local architect who will manage the project from permits to completion. The 429-square-foot home will have one bedroom and bathroom, a galley kitchen and living area and a covered porch.

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “A Retirement Home Is a Tiny House in the Kids’ Backyard” reports that driven by an aging population and a scarcity of affordable housing, accessory dwelling units (ADUs) are a new trend in multigenerational living. These units are also known as in-law suites, garage apartments, carriage houses, casitas and “granny flats.” Freddie Mac found the share of for-sale listings with an ADU rose 8.6% year-over-year since 2009.

Homes such as these can be created by finishing a basement or attic, converting a garage, reconfiguring unused space, adding on, custom-building a detached unit, or installing a prefab. This unit can also be a source of rental income. A homeowner could also use it to house a parent, child or caregiver; downsize into it themselves to rent the main house; or make it into an office or guest quarters.

Converting existing space is less expensive than building a detached unit. A prefab ADU is cheaper and quicker to install than one built on site. However, a custom project allows you to include aging-in-place features, like a step-free entry, wider doorways and a handicapped accessible shower.

An ADU also allows seniors some privacy, so they’ll feel at home, rather than a visitor or intruder. You might add a private entrance and soundproofing to the shared walls of an in-law suite. Sitting areas indoors and outdoors will let you or a parent enjoy solitude, entertain friends without asking for permission and avoid feeling locked in.

Prior to using your nest egg to create an ADU on a child’s property, think about the way in which you’ll pay for the care you will inevitably need someday. You can’t sell the ADU to raise funds and renting it out after you’ve moved elsewhere is unlikely to cover the cost of your care.

In addition, note that if a parent gives a child money to build an ADU within the look-back period when applying for Medicaid, they may be penalized with delayed coverage.

Reference: Kiplinger (Dec. 31, 2020) “A Retirement Home Is a Tiny House in the Kids’ Backyard”

Do I Assume My Parents’ Timeshare when They Die?

Ridding yourself of a timeshare can be difficult. Frequently, heirs of a timeshare owner don’t want to take on the liability and the responsibility.

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “Can I leave a timeshare to the timeshare company in my will?” explains that as a general rule, unless it’s in an attempt to defraud creditors, a beneficiary may always renounce or disclaim a bequest made to him or her in a will.

However, if you write a provision in your will, it doesn’t mean that it’s legal, needs to be followed, or can be carried out.

As an example, a beneficiary designation on a bank account or certificate of deposit (CD) to your brother Dirk would take precedence over a specific bequest in your will that the same account or CD goes to your brother Chris. In that instant, the bank will pay the bank account or CD to your brother Dirk—no matter what your will says.

Likewise, with shares in a closely held business. If there is a contract between the shareholders dictating what happens to shares of the business if someone dies, that agreement will also override a provision in your will.

A timeshare is a contract. That means the terms of that contract control what happens. Your will doesn’t.

If the will doesn’t contradict the contract, like bequeathing the timeshare to a third-party who will continue to pay the contract obligations, both documents can co-exist.

A timeshare owner can’t avoid contractual obligations by just giving back the unit back to the corporation, unless that’s permitted in the contract.

The timeshare corporation isn’t required to take back a timeshare unit whether it is returned by the terms of the will or by the executor in administrating the estate, unless the signed timeshare agreement provides for this, or terms of the return are negotiated.

Reference: nj.com (Dec. 24, 2020) “Can I leave a timeshare to the timeshare company in my will?”

What Estate Planning Documents Should I Have when I Retire?

Research shows that most retirees (53%) have a last will and testament. However, they don’t have six other crucial legal documents.

Money Talks News’ recent article entitled “6 Legal Documents Retirees Need — but Don’t Have” says in fact, in this pandemic, 30% of retirees have none of these crucial documents — not even a will — according to the 20th annual Transamerica Retirement Survey of Retirees.

In addition, the Transamerica survey found the following among retirees:

  • 32% have a power of attorney or medical proxy, which allows a designated agent to make medical decisions on their behalf
  • 30% have an advance directive or living will, which states their end-of-life medical preferences to health care providers
  • 28% have designated a power of attorney to make financial decisions in their stead
  • 19% have written funeral and burial arrangements
  • 18% have filled out a Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) waiver, which allows designated people to talk to their health care and insurance providers on their behalf; and
  • 11% have created a trust.

The study shows there is a big gap that retirees need to fill, if they want to be properly prepared for the end of their lives.

The coronavirus pandemic has created an even more challenging situation. Retirees can and should be taking more actions to protect their health and financial well-being. However, they may find it hard while sheltering in place.

Now more than ever, seniors may need extra motivation and support from their families and friends.

The Transamerica results shouldn’t shock anyone. That is because we have a long history of disregarding death, and very important estate planning questions. No one really wants to ponder their ultimate demise, when they can be out enjoying themselves.

However, planning your estate now will give you peace of mind. More importantly, this planning can save your heirs and loved ones a lot of headaches and stress, when you pass away.

Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney today to get your plan going.

Reference: Money Talks News (Dec. 16, 2020) “6 Legal Documents Retirees Need — but Don’t Have”

How will an Apple Watch Help Study Dementia?

AI’s recent article entitled “Biogen will use Apple Watch to study symptoms of dementia,” says that this study will last for multiple years, and will launch later this year. People from a wide gamut of ages and cognitive performance levels will be asked to take part by Biogen.

They hope to find out if wearable devices like the Apple Watch could be used for long-term cognitive performance monitoring.

The ultimate objective is to develop digital biomarkers for cognitive performance monitoring over time, which may help identify early signs of mild cognitive impairment (MCI).

There are now serious delays in recognizing declines in cognitive health. This impacts about 15 to 20% of adults over the age of 65. The subtle onset of symptoms, including being easily distracted and memory loss, may take months or even years before it is observed as a cognitive decline by healthcare providers.

“The successful development of digital biomarkers in brain health would help address the significant need to accelerate patient diagnoses and empower physicians and individuals to take timely action,” said Biogen CEO Michel Vounatsos. “For healthcare systems, such advancements in cognitive biomarkers from large-scale studies could contribute significantly to prevention and better population-based health outcomes, and lower costs to health systems.”

Apple believes that this study “can help the medical community better understand a person’s cognitive performance, by simply having them engage with their Apple Watch and iPhone,” said Apple COO Jeff Williams. “We’re looking forward to learning about the impact our technology can have in delivering better health outcomes through improved detection of declining cognitive health,” he said.

The Apple Watch has been used for a number of health studies in the past, which are done with the research app. There have been studies to detect heart issues before they become an issue, as well as a hearing study monitoring ambient sound volumes, and activity and movement.

The dementia study is designed to ensure consumer privacy, control and transparency. It will emphasize data security.

The participants must complete a detailed consent from listing the collected data types and how they are used and shared before taking part. They can withdraw at any time.

Reference: AI (Jan. 11, 2021) “Biogen will use Apple Watch to study symptoms of dementia”