Estate Planning Blog Articles

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What’s Elder Law and Do I Need It?

Yahoo News  says in its recent article entitled “What Is Elder Law?” that the growing number of elderly in the U.S. has created a need for lawyers trained to serve clients with the distinct needs of seniors.

The National Elder Law Foundation defines elder law as “the legal practice of counseling and representing older persons and persons with special needs, their representatives about the legal aspects of health and long-term care planning, public benefits, surrogate decision-making, legal capacity, the conservation, disposition and administration of estates and the implementation of their decisions concerning such matters, giving due consideration to the applicable tax consequences of the action, or the need for more sophisticated tax expertise.”

The goal of elder law is to ensure that the elderly client’s wishes are honored. It also seeks to protect an elderly client from abuse, neglect and any illegal or unethical violation of their plans and preferences.

Baby boomers, the largest generation in history, have entered retirement age in recent years.  Roughly 17% of the country is now over the age of 65. The Census estimates that about one out of every five Americans will be elderly by 2040.

Today’s asset management concerns are much sophisticated and consequential than those of the past. Medical care has not only managed to extend life and physical ability but has itself also grown more sophisticated. Let’s look at some of the most common elder law topics:

Estate Planning. This is an area of law that governs how to manage your assets after death. The term “estate” refers to all of your assets and debts, once you have passed. When a person dies, their estate is everything they own and owe. The estate’s debts are then paid from its assets and anything remaining is distributed among your heirs.

Another part of estate planning in elder law concerns powers of attorney. This may arise as a voluntary form of conservatorship. This power can be limited, such as assigning your accountant the authority to file your taxes on your behalf. It can also be very broad, such as assigning a family member the authority to make medical decisions on your behalf while you are unconscious. A power of attorney can also allow a trusted agent to purchase and sell property, sign contracts and other tasks on your behalf.

Disability and Conservatorship. As you grow older, your body or mind may fail. It is a condition known as incapacitation and legally defined as when an individual is either physically unable to express their wishes (such as being unconscious) or mentally unable to understand the nature and quality of their actions. If this happens, you need someone to help you with activities of daily living. Declaring someone mentally unfit, or mentally incapacitated, is a complicated legal and medical issue. If a physician and the court agree that a person cannot take care of themselves, a third party is placed in charge of their affairs. This is known as a conservatorship or guardianship. In most cases, the conservator will have broad authority over the adult’s financial, medical and personal life.

Government programs. Everyone over 65 will, most likely, interact with Medicare. This program provides no- or low-cost healthcare. Social Security is the retirement benefits program. For seniors, understanding how these programs work is critical.

Healthcare. As we get older, health care is an increasingly important part of our financial and personal life. Elder law can entail helping a senior understand their rights and responsibilities when it comes to healthcare, such as long-term care planning and transitioning to a long-term care facility.

Reference: Yahoo News (Jan. 26, 2020) “What Is Elder Law?”

How Do I Conduct an Estate Sale?

At some point in your life, you may be called upon to hold an estate sale after a relative dies or goes into a nursing home.

Deciding how to sell or dispose of can be daunting. US News & World Report’s recent article entitled “Estate Sales for Beginners” gives you everything you need to know about how to hold a successful estate sale.

There’s no rule that says you have to do an estate sale. However, it can be a long process. Keep these things in mind.

Allow Time to Prepare. Estate sales are more complicated than a simple one-day yard sale, if you want to do it correctly and realize a profit. It can be emotionally stressful and challenging time, so ask for help and support from friends, family and professionals. Give family members a chance to “shop,” and decide how you want to do this. It can be done by lottery for certain items that several family members want, or you can sell some of the belongings cheaply to family members. After your family goes through everything, you might see that it’s not worth the time and effort to have a sale. Maybe you just keep some things, donate some and haul the rest away.

Decide if You Want to Hire a Professional. You can hire an estate sale service. They’ll take a commission, such as 30% to 45% of the sale’s gross profits, but you may find the cost is worth it. The service will handle most of the logistics.

Consider Selling Some Stuff Yourself. If there are a few big expensive items, you may want to sell it while the estate service provider or auction house handles everything else. This allows you to have the ability to negotiate, if the potential buyer wants to negotiate, instead of letting an estate sale company do it; and second, you don’t then have to pay the estate sale company’s commission on that item.

Make the Event as Professional as Possible. If you do it yourself, you need to advertise the event and mention some of the items people will find at the sale, like antiques or sterling silver. You can have some music playing softly in the background to brighten the mood and make people want to linger longer, so they keep looking and buying. People like to negotiate, so you don’t get too set with your prices. Have a policy that the more someone buys, the larger the discount.

Most estate sales last one to two days.

Reference: US News & World Report (Dec. 22, 2021) “Estate Sales for Beginners”

 

Should I Withdraw more than RMD?

As most know, once a person hits 72, the IRS require you to take a certain minimum amount from your IRA each year. Many do take only the minimum, believing that this will leave more assets to grow tax deferred. However, recent tax changes are a reason to revisit one’s IRA distribution strategy.

MSN’s article entitled “Should You Take an Extra Big RMD This Year?” says that although some people are worried about paying more in taxes this year than they need to may want stay to the bare minimum of their required minimum distribution (RMD), others seek to find a broader tax strategy.

Those people may want to consider going big with their RMDs. Let’s look the wisdom of taking more than the required minimum distribution from your IRA.

The article gives us four considerations to help with your RMD decision about possibly taking more than the IRA RMD in any year:

  1. Your tax bracket. Determine the amount of additional income you can recognize this year, while still staying within your current tax bracket. Taxpayers in the 10% and 12% tax brackets should be especially cognizant of maximizing ordinary income in these relatively low tax brackets.
  2. Your income. See what your income’s projected to be next year and consider whether you (or you and your spouse) will have other sources of income in future years, such as an inherited IRA, spouse’s IRA RMD or annuity income to add to the mix.
  3. Your beneficiaries. Look at the way in which your current tax rate compares with the tax rates of your IRA beneficiaries. If you have a large IRA and children with high incomes of their own, your heirs could be pushed into a much higher tax bracket when they start their inherited IRA distributions.
  4. Your Medicare premiums. An increase in income can also result in higher Medicare Part B & D premiums in coming years. As a result, consider this in the context of total savings.

Reference: MSN (Nov. 23, 2021) “Should You Take an Extra Big RMD This Year?”

 

Why are Siblings Battling over Mom’s Estate?

Sisters Jean Mamakos and Irene Savadian — both retired nurses in their 70s —have been locked in a bitter fight with their three other siblings over their mother’s $2.7 million estate.

The New York Post’s recent article entitled “Nasty family feud over mom’s will lands two retired sisters in jail — and one may lose her home” explains that Frances Perrenod, who died in 2006, named Mamakos and Savadian as the executors of her estate. All five of her children were named as beneficiaries. Perrenod was a homemaker and her husband, Charles, who died in 1988, manufactured specialized miniature light bulbs.

Since the siblings started their legal challenges in 2008, their objections have included the payment of legal fees to settle the estate with money from it; the cost to pursue mineral rights owned by their mother; and allegations that the executors delayed the sale of their mom’s Forest Hills home. They sold the Tudor home, which the family moved into in 1957, in 2014 for $1.8 million.

Anette Klingman, the oldest sibling who is an attorney, told The Post that her sisters were mismanaging the estate and taking money out of it to which they weren’t entitled. She was joined in her opposition to them with sister, Yvette Ravina, and her brother Charles Perrenod Jr., who died in 2020.

One of the disgruntled siblings also started a proceeding in South Carolina to take Irene Savadian’s house.

However, it really got ugly in April 2016, during a lunch break in a proceeding in Surrogate’s Court in Queens, Mamakos and Savadian said. Queens Surrogate Judge Peter Kelly said that the sisters were in contempt of court. At issue was a $100,000 distribution made to each beneficiary, a check the three disgruntled siblings refused to cash, Mamakos said. The judge ordered the two sisters to return their checks, but Savadian refused. Because Kelly said the sisters’ actions were “entwined,” both were sent to Rikers Island, where they were strip-searched and spent 21 days behind bars.

The two retained a lawyer for $50,000 to get them released from the lockup. However, when they were released, the discovered that Judge Kelly had replaced them as executors, naming their sister, Ravina.

In 2018, a final judgment in the estate was entered against Mamakos and Savadian for $1.8 million. It included the return of money they used for legal and other expenses to settle the estate. Judge Kelly ruled against a motion to vacate the judgment in October 2021, which the sisters are now trying to appeal.

Ravina started a lawsuit in South Carolina to take Savadian’s $400,000 house.

“We didn’t steal any money from my mother. We tried to get a good settlement for our siblings,” Savadian said. “It backfired against us.”

Reference: New York Post (Jan. 22, 2022) “Nasty family feud over mom’s will lands two retired sisters in jail — and one may lose her home”

Does the Executor Control Bank Accounts?

Executors administering probate assets usually have to deal with several different financial institutions. If good planning has been done by the decedent, the executor has a list of assets, account numbers, website addresses and phone numbers. Otherwise, the personal representative or successor trustee starts by gathering information and identifying the accounts, as described in a recent article “Dealing with the back offices of banks and brokerages” from Lake Country News.

The accounts must be identified, retitled to become part of the estate, or liquidated and moved into the estate account.

If the decedent had a financial advisor who handled all of their investments, the process may be easier, since there will only be one person to deal with.

If there is no financial advisor who can or will personally manage the assets, the executor starts by contacting the back office department of the institution, often referred to as the “estates department.” The contact info can usually be found on the institutions’ website or on the paper statements, if there are any.

Expect to spend a lot of time on hold, especially in the beginning of the week. It may be better to call on a Wednesday or Thursday.

The first call is to introduce the executor, advise of the death of the decedent and learn about the company’s procedures for transferring, retitling, or otherwise gaining control of the account. The bank usually assigns a case number, to be used on all future communications.

If possible, obtain their name, direct dial, and direct email of whoever you speak with. It may only be with one assigned representative, or a different person every time. It depends upon the organization. Take careful notes on every interaction. You may need them.

Some of the documents needed to complete these transactions include an original death certificate, a court certified letter of administration or trustee’s certification of trust and a letter of authorization signed by the client to allow the institution to communicate with the executor or successor trustee.

Financial institutions will often only accept their own forms, which then need to be prepared for completion and signature. Expect to be asked to notarize some documents. In many cases, the institution will require a new account be opened and the assets transferred to the new account.

Be organized—you may find yourself needing to submit the documents multiple times, depending on the financial institution. If hard copy documents are sent, use registered or express mail requiring a signature on delivery. If documents are sent by email, they should only be sent via an encrypted portal to protect both estate and executor.

This is not a quick process and requires diligent follow up, with multiple emails and phone calls. If the value of the estate is large and the assets are complex, it may be better to have the estate planning attorney handle the process.

Reference: Lake Country News (Jan. 15, 2022) “Dealing with the back offices of banks and brokerages”

How Do I Write My Will?

Remember that if you don’t write your will correctly, your wishes could end up going unfulfilled, says Claremont Portside’s article entitled “A Guide for Writing Your Will: Steps You Need to Take.”

While there are a lot of tools online, your best bet is working with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Schedule a meeting with an estate planning attorney to discuss your final wishes. The process of writing a will is relatively straightforward:

  • Decide who you want to inherit your assets
  • Remember to include your favorite charities, if you want
  • Note if any of your heirs has special needs or requires extra planning (e.g., if they’re not good with money)
  • Note if you have minor children who will need a guardian and can’t inherit outright at their age
  • List the specific items or assets you want each person to inherit
  • List any debts or liabilities
  • Designate an executor or personal representative
  • Determine how your estate should be managed, until it is distributed; and
  • Ask your attorney about tax implications.

Once prepared, retain a copy in a safe place and make copies for your executor, your spouse or partner, children older than 18 years old and any other heirs who live in another state.

When you begin this process, create a list of what you own and how much it’s worth. This can help ensure that your estate is distributed according to your wishes.

The executor of your will is responsible for ensuring that everything goes according to plan, so choose someone you trust.

Reference: Claremont Portside “A Guide for Writing Your Will: Steps You Need to Take”

Storing Passwords in Case of Death

Despite having the resources to hire IT forensic experts to help access accounts, including her husband’s IRA, it’s been three years and Deborah Placet still hasn’t been able to gain access to her husband’s Bitcoin account. Placet and her late husband were financial planners and should have known better. However, they didn’t have a digital estate plan. Her situation, according to the Barron’s article “How to Ensure Heirs Avoid a Password-Protected Nightmare” offers cautionary tale.

Our digital footprint keeps expanding. As a result, there’s no paper trail to follow when a loved one dies. In the past, an executor or estate administrator could simply have mail forwarded and figure out accounts, assets and values. Not only don’t we have a paper trail, but digital accounts are protected by passwords, multifactor authentication processes, fingerprints, facial recognition systems and federal data privacy laws.

The starting point is to create a list of digital accounts. Instructions on how to gain access to the accounts must be very specific, because a password alone may not be enough information. Explain what you want to happen to the account: should ownership be transferred to someone else, who has permission to retrieve and save the data and whether you want the account to be shut down and no data saved, etc.

The account list should include:

  • Social media platforms
  • Traditional bank, retirement and investment accounts
  • PayPal, Venmo and similar payment accounts
  • Cryptocurrency wallets, nonfungible token (NFT) assets
  • Home and utilities accounts, like mortgage, electric, gas, cable, internet
  • Insurance, including home, auto, flood, health, life, disability, long-term care.
  • Smart phone accounts
  • Online storage accounts
  • Photo, music and video accounts
  • Subscription services
  • Loyalty/rewards programs
  • Gaming accounts

Some accounts may be accessed by using a username and password. However, others are more secure and require biometric protection. This information should all be included in a document, but the document should not be included in the Last Will, since the Last Will becomes public information through probate and is accessible to anyone who wants to see it.

Certain platforms have created a process to allow heirs to access assets. Typically, death certificates, a Last Will or probate documents, a valid photo ID of the deceased and a letter signed by those named in the probate records outlining what is to be done with assets are required. However, not every platform has addressed this issue.

Compiling a list of digital assets is about as much fun as preparing for tax season. However, without a plan, digital assets are likely to be lost. Identity theft and fraud occurs when assets are unprotected and unused.

Just as a traditional estate plan protects heirs to avoid further stress and expense, a digital estate plan helps to protect the family and loved ones. Speak with your estate planning attorney as you are working on your estate plan to create a digital estate plan.

Reference: Barron’s (Dec. 15, 2021) “How to Ensure Heirs Avoid a Password-Protected Nightmare”

What Is Elder Law?

WAGM’s recent article entitled “A Closer Look at Elder Law“ takes a look at what goes into estate planning and elder law.

Wills and estate planning may not be the most exciting things to talk about. However, in this day and age, they can be one of the most vital tools to ensure your wishes are carried out after you’re gone.

People often don’t know what they should do, or what direction they should take.

The earlier you get going and consider your senior years, the better off you’re going to be. For many, it seems to be around 55 when it comes to starting to think about long term care issues.

However, you can start your homework long before that.

Elder law attorneys focus their practice on issues that concern older people. However, it’s not exclusively for older people, since these lawyers counsel other family members of the elderly about their concerns.

A big concern for many families is how do I get started and how much planning do I have to do ahead of time?

If you’re talking about an estate plan, what’s stored just in your head is usually enough preparation to get the ball rolling and speak with an experienced estate planning or elder law attorney.

They can create an estate plan that may consists of a basic will, a financial power of attorney, a medical power of attorney and a living will.

For long term care planning, people will frequently wait too long to start their preparations, and they’re faced with a crisis. That can entail finding care for a loved one immediately, either at home or in a facility, such as an assisted living home or nursing home. Waiting until a crisis also makes it harder to find specific information about financial holdings.

Some people also have concerns about the estate or death taxes with which their families may be saddled with after they pass away. For the most part, that’s not an issue because the federal estate tax only applies if your estate is worth more than $12.06 million in 2022. However, you should know that a number of states have their own estate tax. This includes Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington, plus Washington, D.C.

Iowa, Kentucky, Nebraska, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania have only an inheritance tax, which is a tax on what you receive as the beneficiary of an estate. Maryland has both.

Therefore, the first thing to do is to recognize that we have two stages. The first is where we may need care during life, and the second is to distribute our assets after death. Make certain that you have both in place.

Reference: WAGM (Dec. 8, 2021) “A Closer Look at Elder Law“

Will Moving to a New State Impact My Estate Planning?

Since the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S., baby boomers have been speeding up their retirement plans. Many Americans have also been moving to new states. For retirees, the non-financial considerations often revolve around weather, proximity to grandchildren and access to quality healthcare and other services.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “Thinking of Retiring and Moving? Consider the Financial Implications First” provides some considerations for retirees who may set off on a move.

  1. Income tax rates. Before moving to a new state, you should know how much income you’re likely to be generating in retirement. It’s equally essential to understand what type of income you’re going to generate. Your income as well as the type of income you receive could significantly influence your economic health as a retiree, after you make your move. Before moving to a new state, look into the tax code of your prospective new state. Many states have flat income tax rates, such as Massachusetts at 5%. The states that have no income tax include Alaska, Florida, Nevada, Texas, Washington, South Dakota and Wyoming. Other states that don’t have flat income tax rates may be attractive or unattractive, based on your level of income. Another important consideration is the tax treatment of Social Security income, pension income and retirement plan income. Some states treat this income just like any other source of income, while others offer preferential treatment to the income that retirees typically enjoy.
  2. Housing costs. The cost of housing varies dramatically from state to state and from city to city, so understand how your housing costs are likely to change. You should also consider the cost of buying a home, maintenance costs, insurance and property taxes. Property taxes may vary by state and also by county. Insurance costs can also vary.
  3. Sales taxes. Some states (New Hampshire, Oregon, Montana, Delaware and Alaska) have no sales taxes. However, most states have a sales tax of some kind, which generally adds to the cost of living. California has the highest sales tax, currently at 7.5%, then comes Tennessee, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Mississippi and Indiana, each with a sales tax of 7%. Many other places also have a county sales tax and a city sales tax. You should also research those taxes.
  4. The state’s financial health. Examine the health of the state pension systems where you are thinking about moving. The states with the highest level of unfunded pension debts include Connecticut, Illinois, Alaska, New Jersey and Hawaii. They each have unfunded state pensions at a level of more than 20% of their state GDP. If you’re thinking about moving to one of those states, you’re more apt to see tax increases in the future because of the huge financial obligations of these states.
  5. The overall cost of living. Examine your budget to see the extent to which your annual living expenses might increase or decrease in your new location because food, healthcare and transportation costs can vary by location. If your costs are going to go up, that should be all right, provided you have the financial resources to fund a larger expense budget. Be sure that you’ve accounted for the differences before you move.
  6. Estate planning considerations. If this is going to be your last move, it’s likely that the laws of your new state will apply to your estate after you die. Many states don’t have an estate or gift tax, which means your estate and gifts will only be subject to federal tax laws. However, a number of states, such as Maryland and Iowa, have a state estate tax.

You should talk to an experienced estate planning attorney about the estate and gift tax implications of your move.

Reference: Forbes (Nov. 30, 2021) “Thinking of Retiring and Moving? Consider the Financial Implications First”

When Do I Need to Review Will?

You should take a look at your will and other estate planning documents at least every few years, unless there are reasons to do it more frequently. Some reasons to do it sooner include things like marriage, divorce, birth or adoption of a child, coming into a lot of money (i.e., inheritance, lottery win, etc.) or even moving to another state where estate laws are different from where your will was drawn up.

CNBC’s recent article entitled “When it comes to a will or estate plan, don’t just set it and forget it. You need to keep them updated” says that one of the primary considerations for a review is a life event — when there’s a major change in your life.

The pandemic has created an interest in estate planning, which includes a will and other legal documents that address end-of-life considerations. Research now shows that 18- to 34-year-olds are now more likely (by 16%) to have a will than those who are in the 35-to-54 age group. In the 25-to-40 age group, just 32% do, according to a survey. Even so, fewer than 46% of U.S. adults have a will.

If you’re among those who have a will or comprehensive estate plan, here are some things to review and why. In addition to reviewing your will in terms of who gets what, see if the person you named as executor is still a suitable choice. An executor must do things such as liquidating accounts, ensuring that your assets go to the proper beneficiaries, paying any debts not discharged (i.e., taxes owed) and selling your home.

Likewise, look at the people to whom you’ve assigned powers of attorney. If you become incapacitated at some point, the people with that authority will handle your medical and financial affairs, if you are unable. The original people you named to handle certain duties may no longer be in a position to do so.

Some assets pass outside of the will, such as retirement accounts, like a Roth IRA or 401(k)plans and life insurance proceeds. As a result, the person named as a beneficiary on those accounts will generally receive the money, regardless of what your will says. Note that 401(k) plans usually require your current spouse to be the beneficiary, unless they legally agree otherwise.

Regular bank accounts can also have beneficiaries listed on a payable-on-death form, obtained at your bank.

If you own a home, make sure to see how it should be titled, so it is given to the person (or people) you intend.

Reference: CNBC (Dec. 7, 2021) “When it comes to a will or estate plan, don’t just set it and forget it. You need to keep them updated”