Estate Planning Blog Articles

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Does Sleeping Too Little Increase Risk of Dementia?

Researchers have looked at the issue of a lack of sleep and a link to developing dementia for many years, as well as other questions about how sleep relates to cognitive decline. The answers have been tough to find because it is hard to know if insufficient sleep is a symptom of the brain changes that underlie dementia — or if it can actually help cause those changes.

The New York Times’ recent article entitled “Sleeping Too Little in Middle Age May Increase Dementia Risk, Study Finds” reports that a large new study found some of the most persuasive findings to date that suggest that people who don’t get enough sleep in their 50s and 60s may be more apt to develop dementia when they are older.

The research, published recently in the journal Nature Communications, has limitations but also several strengths. Researchers monitored 8,000 people in Britain for about 25 years, starting when they were 50. They found that those who consistently reported sleeping six hours or less on an average weeknight were about 30% more likely than those who regularly got seven hours sleep (defined as “normal” sleep in the study) to be diagnosed with dementia nearly three decades later.

Drawing on medical records and other data from a prominent study of British civil servants called “Whitehall II,” which began in the mid-1980s, the researchers logged the number of hours that 7,959 participants said they slept in reports filed six times between 1985 and 2016. By the end of the study, 521 people had been diagnosed with dementia at an average age of 77.

The team was able to adjust for several behaviors and characteristics that might influence people’s sleep patterns or dementia risk, like smoking, alcohol consumption, how physically active people were, body mass index, fruit and vegetable consumption, education level, marital status and conditions like hypertension, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

To further clarify the sleep-dementia relationship, researchers culled out those who had mental illnesses before age 65. Depression is considered a risk factor for dementia and mental health disorders are strongly connected to sleep disturbances. The study’s analysis of participants without mental illnesses found a similar association between short-sleepers and increased risk of dementia.

The link also held whether people were taking sleep medication and whether they had a mutation called ApoE4 that makes people more apt to develop Alzheimer’s.

Experts seem to agree that researching the sleep-and-dementia connection is challenging and that previous studies have sometimes produced confusing findings. In some studies, those who sleep too long (usually measured as nine hours or more) seem to have greater dementia risk, but several of those studies were smaller or had older participants. In the new study, results intimated increased risk for long sleepers (defined as eight hours or more because there weren’t enough nine-hour sleepers), but the association was not statistically significant.

The new study also looked at whether people’s sleep changed over time. There appeared to be slightly increased dementia risk in people who shifted from short to normal sleep—a pattern thought to reflect that they slept too little at age 50 and needed more sleep later because of developing dementia.

Reference: New York Times (April 20, 2021) “Sleeping Too Little in Middle Age May Increase Dementia Risk, Study Finds”

Do I Need to Pay Taxes on Life Insurance Proceeds?

Life insurance is designed to pay out a death benefit to your beneficiaries, if you die while the policy is in effect, usually in a lump sum. Fox 6’s recent article entitled “Is life insurance taxable?” explains that when large amounts of money change hands, taxes are usually a given. However, that’s not the case with most life insurance.

There are some special situations that may involve taxes, like inheriting a large estate or electing to receive policy benefits in installments. However, there are strategies you can leverage to avoid paying taxes on life insurance.

Beneficiaries don’t usually have to pay taxes on money received from a life insurance policy because the IRS doesn’t consider life insurance proceeds as taxable income. If you have an accelerated death benefit rider and need to access your own policy’s proceeds due to a terminal illness, that also won’t be taxed.

While you most likely won’t have to worry about taxes on a life insurance payout, there a couple of exceptions:

  • If all the policyholder’s assets meet the IRS’ federal estate tax threshold ($11.7 million in 2021), the policy’s proceeds could be taxable
  • If you elect to get the policy benefits in incremental installments instead of a one-time life insurance payout, you’ll have to pay taxes on any interest that accrues
  • If a person takes out a life insurance policy on someone other than himself – or herself, then policy’s benefits are considered a gift, and any monetary gifts above $15,000 are taxable; and
  • If the policyholder dies with an outstanding cash value loan, the policy’s death benefit could be used to settle it. Any amount the policyholder borrows beyond what they’ve paid into the policy is taxable.

These situations usually concern beneficiaries, but there are a few situations that could leave the policyholder responsible for taxes. In addition to taking out a policy loan, when you sell or surrender your policy and the cash value exceeds the amount you’ve contributed through premiums, the excess is taxable.

There are strategies for getting around this situation:

  • To avoid taxes, you can work with your life insurance company to legally transfer the policy to a new owner, such as the beneficiary so the policy’s proceeds aren’t included in the estate. However, this will place the responsibility for making premium payments and the ability to change the policy in the new owner’s hands.
  • An irrevocable life insurance trust or ILIT irreversibly transfers ownership of the policy to the trust, removing it from the taxable estate.
  • Installment payouts accrue interest and may be taxed, but a lump sum payment isn’t.

Talk to an experienced estate planning or elder law attorney about life insurance and how it can fit into your estate planning strategy.

Reference: Fox 6 (April 14, 2021) “Is life insurance taxable?”

How Long has Medicare Sequestration Holiday Been Extended?

The U.S. House of Representatives has overwhelmingly voted by a 384-38 margin in favor of a continued sequestration delay.

The bill was one of two measures introduced since early March designed to delay the return of Medicare sequestration, which is an automatic 2% cut for all health care providers paid through Medicare.

Home Healthcare News’s recent article entitled “Biden, Congress Extend Medicare Sequestration Holiday Through 2021” reports that recently President Joe Biden officially signed the legislation. Because the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has been expecting Congress to pass this type of law, it hasn’t been enforcing the 2% cut, despite the holiday’s expiration coming earlier in April.

Organizations, such as the Partnership for Quality Home Healthcare (PQHH) and others have supported the legislation. CMS has been cutting Medicare reimbursements to home health providers by 2%, as directed by Congress, since 2014. Under the law, payments that exceed Medicare’s cap must be returned to CMS.

In 2020, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act stopped the automatic 2% cut to all Medicare providers. In December, this temporary moratorium was extended through March 2021.

This was intended to let home health providers have the resources to provide care during the COVID-19 emergency, while staying afloat financially.

The legislation will defer $36 billion in previously scheduled Medicare cuts in 2021.

In March, the House passed different sequestration legislation. However, the key difference between the two laws is, in addition to extending the sequestration delay, the previously introduced bill also dispensed with statutory pay-as-you-go (PAYGO) budget enforcement measures.

The PAYGO rule requires new legislation not to raise the federal budget deficit or lower the surplus.

The bill passed last week in the House and signed by the president doesn’t address the PAYGO issue.

Reference: Home Healthcare News (April 14, 2020) “Biden, Congress Extend Medicare Sequestration Holiday Through 2021”

Will Inheritance and Gift Taxes Change in 2021?

Uncertainty is driving many wealth transfers, with gifting taking the lead for many wealthy families, reports the article “No More Gift Tax Exemption?” from Financial Advisor. For families who have already used up a large amount or even all of their exemptions, there are other strategies to consider.

Making gifts outright or through a trust is still possible, even if an individual or couple used all of their gift and generation skipping transfer tax exemptions. Gifts and generation skipping transfer tax exemption amounts are indexed for inflation, increasing to $11.7 million in 2021 from $11.58 million in 2020. Individuals have $120,000 additional gift and generation-skipping transfer tax exemptions that can be used this year.

Annual exclusion gifts—individuals can make certain gifts up to $15,000 per recipient, and couples can give up to $30,000 per person. This does not count towards gift and estate tax exemptions.

Don’t forget about Grantor Retained Annuity Trust (GRAT) options. The GRAT is an irrevocable trust, where the grantor makes a gift of property to it, while retaining a right to an annual payment from the trust for a specific number of years. GRATS can also be used for concentrated positions and assets expected to appreciate that significantly reap a number of advantages.

A Sale to a Grantor Trust takes advantage of the differences between the income and transfer tax treatment of irrevocable trusts. The goal is to transfer anticipated appreciation of assets at a reduced gift tax cost. This may be timely for those who have funded a trust using their gift tax exemption, as this strategy usually requires funding of a trust before a sale.

Intra-family loans permit individuals to make loans to family members at lower rates than commercial lenders, without the loan being considered a gift. A family member can help another family member financially, without incurring additional gift tax. A bona fide creditor relationship, including interest payments, must be established.

It’s extremely important to work with a qualified estate planning attorney when implementing tax planning strategies, especially this year. Tax reform is on the horizon, but knowing exactly what the final changes will be, and whether they will be retroactive, is impossible to know. There are many additional techniques, from disclaimers, QTIPs and formula gifts, that an experienced estate planning attorney may consider when planning to protect a family legacy.

Reference: Financial Advisor (April 1, 2021) “No More Gift Tax Exemption?”

What Emergency Documents Do I Need in Pandemic?

With the threat of COVID-19, we’ve all come face-to-face with our mortality. However, are you prepared for the worst?, asks KSAT in its January 23 article entitled, “Important documents you need to have handy in case of an emergency.”

A consumer report recently found that just 7% of those ages 19 to 29 have an advance directive for health care emergencies, and even fewer have a will. Estate planning is one of the most worthwhile things we could do for ourselves or our loved ones.

The article explains that your estate is everything you own, and if it’s not protected, it could be taken away from your loved ones.

An extremely important document to have, in addition to a will, is a living will and a healthcare proxy or power of attorney. These documents let you designate the individual who will make decisions on your behalf, if you cannot speak for yourself.

In addition, a HIPAA authorization permits an individual you trust to speak with your healthcare staff and receive your personal medical information.

Another key document is a financial power of attorney. This empowers you to designate an agent to handle your debts, contracts and assets. A financial power of attorney must be signed and notarized.

You should also consider payable on death and transfer on death designations, which transfer assets to designated beneficiaries without probate.

It is important to conduct a digital asset inventory to list your entire online presence and include all accounts, logins, passwords, social media, and professional profiles, and most importantly, a list of everything you have on autopay.

Last, you need a last will and testament. This lets you to name an executor or personal representative to handle your postmortem affairs. However, a last will does not keep assets out of probate.

One last note: you can prepare a personal property memorandum to list the beneficiaries of any sentimental, non-monetary items.

Reference: KSAT (San Antonio) (Jan. 23, 2021) “Important documents you need to have handy in case of an emergency”

How to Protect Digital Property

When people built wealth, assets were usually tangible: real estate, investments, cash, or jewelry. However, the last year has seen a huge jump in digital assets, which includes cryptocurrency and NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens). Combine this growing asset class with the coming biggest wealth transfer in history, says the article “What happens to your NFTs and crypto assets after you die?” from Tech Crunch, and the problems of inheriting assets will take more than a complete search of the family attic.

One survey found only one in four consumers have someone in their life who knows the details of their digital assets, from the location of the online accounts to passwords. However, digital assets that require two factor authentication or biometrics to gain access may make even this information useless.

There are many reports about people who purchased digital assets like Bitcoin and then lost their passwords or threw away their computers. More than $250 million in client assets vanished when a cryptocurrency exchange founder died and private keys to these accounts could not be found.

Digital assets need to be a part of anyone’s estate plan. A last will and testament is used to dictate how assets are to be distributed. If there is no will, the state’s estate law will distribute assets. A complete list of accounts and assets should not be part of a will, since it becomes a public document when it goes through probate. However, a complete list of assets and accounts needs to be prepared and shared with a trusted person.

Even traditional assets, like bank accounts and investment accounts, are lost when no one knows of their existence. If a family or executor doesn’t know about accounts, and if there are no paper statements mailed to the decedent’s home, it’s not likely that the assets will be found.

Things get more complicated with digital assets. By their nature, digital assets are decentralized.  This is part of their attraction for many people. Knowing that the accounts or digital property exists is only part one. Knowing how to access them after death is difficult. Account names, private keys to digital assets and passwords need to be gathered and protected. Directives or directions for what you want to happen to the accounts after you die need to be created, but not every platform has policies to do this.

Password sharing is explicitly prohibited by most website and app owners. Privacy laws also prohibit using someone else’s password, which is technically “account holder impersonation.” Digital accounts that require two factor authentication or use biometrics, like facial recognition, make it impossible for an executor to gain access to the data.

Some platforms have created a means of identifying a person who may be in charge of your digital assets, including Facebook and more recently, LinkedIn. Some exchanges, like Ethereum, have procedures for death-management. Some will require a copy of the will as part of their process to release funds to an estate, so you will need to name the asset (although not the account number).

A digital wallet can be used to store access information for digital assets, if the family is reasonably comfortable using one. A complete list of assets should include tangible and digital assets. It needs to be updated annually or whenever you add new assets.

Reference: Tech Crunch (April 5, 2021) “What happens to your NFTs and crypto assets after you die?”

Are You Clueless about Social Security?

If you haven’t a clue about Social Security, it’s vital that you learn, so you can be ready to grow and maximize your benefits.

Lake Geneva Regional News’ recent article entitled “35% of Near-Retirees Failed a Basic Social Security Quiz. Here Are 3 Things You Need to Know About It” provides several important things you should know:

Your benefits are determined by your top 35 years of earnings. The monthly benefit you get in retirement is based on your specific earnings during your 35 highest-paid years in the workforce. If you don’t work a full 35 years, you’ll have $0 factored into that equation for each year you’re missing an income. So, you can see how important it is to try to fill in those gaps. If you lost your job during the pandemic and are thinking about early retirement, check your earnings history before you do.

You’re only entitled to your full monthly benefit when you hit full retirement age. You can claim your monthly retirement benefit in full once you hit your full retirement age (FRA). However, many people don’t know what that age is. About a quarter (26%) of those aged 60 to 65 couldn’t correctly identify their FRA on the quiz. Your FRA is based on your year of birth.

You can claim Social Security as early as age 62 or wait until age 70 and grow your benefits in the process. However, you’ll need to know your FRA first.

You can collect Social Security, even if you never worked. If you are or were married to someone who’s entitled to Social Security, you may be eligible for spousal benefits that amount to 50% of what your current or ex-spouse collects.

MassMutual found that 30% of older Americans didn’t know that a person who’s divorced may be able to collect Social Security benefits based on a former spouse’s earnings history. Thus, it pays to read up on spousal benefits as retirement nears, even if you never held a job.

Being ill-informed about Social Security could make it more difficult to file at the right time and make the most of your Social Security income

Stay up to date on how Social Security benefits work, so you’re able to make wise choices for your retirement.

Reference: Lake Geneva Regional News (April 10, 2021) “35% of Near-Retirees Failed a Basic Social Security Quiz. Here Are 3 Things You Need to Know About It”

Should Young Families have an Estate Plan?

Young families are always on the go. New parents are busy with diapers, feeding schedules and trying to get a good night’s sleep. As a result, it’s hard to think about the future when you’re so focused on the present. Even so, young parents should think about estate planning.

Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled, “Why Young Families Should Consider an Estate Plan,” explains that the word “estate” might sound upscale, but estate planning isn’t just for the wealthy. Your estate is simply all the assets you have when you die. This includes bank accounts, 401(k) plan, a home and cars. An estate plan helps to make certain that your property goes to the right people, that your debts are paid and your family is cared for. Without an estate plan, your estate must go through probate, which is a potentially lengthy court process that settles the debts and distributes the assets of the decedent.

Estate planning is valuable for young families, even if they don’t have extensive assets. Consider these key estate planning actions that every parent needs to take to make certain they’ve protected their child, no matter what the future has in store.

Purchase Life Insurance. Raising children is costly, and if a parent dies, life insurance provides funds to continue providing for surviving children. For most, term life insurance is a good move because the premiums are affordable, and the coverage will be in effect until the children grow to adulthood and are no longer financially dependent.

Make a Will and Name a Guardian for your Children. For parents, the most important reason to make a will is to designate a guardian for your children. If you fail to do this, the courts will decide and may place your children with a relative with whom you have not spoken in years. However, if you name a guardian, you choose a person or couple you know has the same values and who will raise your kids as you would have.

Review Your Beneficiaries. You probably already have a 401(k) or IRA that makes you identify who will inherit it if you die. You’ll need to update these accounts, if you want your children to inherit these assets.

Consider a Trust. If you die before your children turn 18, your children can’t directly assume control of an inheritance, which can be an issue. The probate court could name an individual to manage the assets you leave to your child. However, if you want to specify who will manage assets, how your money and property should be used for your children and when your children should directly receive a transfer of wealth, consider asking an experienced estate planning attorney about a trust. With a trust, you can name a designated person to manage money on behalf of your children and provide direction regarding how the trustee can use the money to help care for your children as they grow. Trusts aren’t just for the very well-to-do. Anyone may be able to benefit from a trust.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (April 13, 2021) “Why Young Families Should Consider an Estate Plan”

Can a Person with Alzheimer’s Sign Legal Documents?

If a loved one has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or any other form of dementia, it is necessary to address legal and financial issues as soon as possible. The person’s ability to sign documents and take other actions to protect themselves and their assets will be limited as the disease progresses, so there’s no time to wait. This recent article “Financial steps to take when dealing with Alzheimer’s” from Statesville Record & Landmark explains the steps to take.

Watch for Unusual Financial Activity

Someone who has been sensible about money for most of his life may start to behave differently with his finances. This is often an early sign of cognitive decline. If bills are piling up, or unusual purchases are being made, you may need to prepare to take over his finances. It should be noted that unusual financial activity can also be a sign of elder financial abuse.

Designate a Power of Attorney

The best time to designate a person to take care of finances is before she shows signs of dementia. It’s not an easy conversation, but it is very important. Someone needs to be identified who can be trusted to manage day-to-day money matters, who can sign checks, pay bills and supervise finances. If possible, it may be easier if the POA gradually eases into the role, only taking full control when the person with dementia can no longer manage on her own.

An individual needs to be legally competent to complete or update legal documents including wills, trusts, an advanced health care directive and other estate planning documents. Once such individual is not legally competent, the court must be petitioned to name a family member as a guardian, or a guardian will be appointed by the court. It is far easier for the family and the individual to have this handled by an estate planning attorney in advance of incompetency.

An often-overlooked detail in cases of Alzheimer’s is the beneficiary designations on retirement, financial and life insurance policies. Check with an estate planning attorney for help, if there is any question that changes may be challenged by the financial institution or by heirs.

Cost of Care and How It Will Be Paid

At a certain point, people with dementia cannot live on their own. Even those who love them cannot care for them safely. Determining how care will be provided, which nursing facility has the correct resources for a person with cognitive illness and how to pay for this care, must be addressed. An elder law estate planning attorney can help the family navigate through the process, including helping to protect family assets through the use of trusts and other planning strategies.

If the family has a strong history of Alzheimer’s disease or other cognitive diseases, it makes sense to do this sort of preparation far in advance. The sooner it can be addressed, even long before dementia symptoms appear, the better the outcome will be.

Reference: Statesville Record & Landmark (April 11, 2021) “Financial steps to take when dealing with Alzheimer’s”

What Happens when Homeowner Dies without Will?

When parents die suddenly, in this case due to COVID-19, and there is no will and no discussions have taken place, siblings are placed in an awkward, expensive and emotionally fraught situation. The article titled “My parents died of COVID-19 and left no will. My brother lives rent-free in their home and borrowed $35,000. What now?” from MarketWatch sums up the situation, but the answer is complicated.

When there is no will, or “intestacy,” there aren’t a lot of choices.

These parents had a few bank accounts, owned their home outright and left no debts. They had six adult children, including one that died and is survived by two living sons. None of the siblings agrees upon anything, so nothing has been done.

One of the siblings lives in the house rent free. Another brother was loaned $35,000 for a down payment on a mobile home. He now claims that the loan was a gift and does not have to pay it back. There are receipts, but the money was paid directly to the escrow company from the mother’s bank account.

How do you determine if this brother received a loan or a gift? What do you do about the brother who lives rent-free in the family home? How does the family now move the estate into probate without losing the house and the bank accounts, while maintaining a sense of family?

For starters, an administrator needs to be appointed to begin the probate process and act as a mediator among the siblings. In some states, the administrator also requires a family tree, so they can know who the descendants are. Barring some huge change of heart among the siblings, this is the only option.

If the parents failed to name a personal representative and the siblings cannot agree on who should serve, an estate administration lawyer is the sensible choice. The court may name someone, if there is concern about possible conflicts of interests or the rights of creditors or other beneficiaries.

A warning to all concerned about how the appointment of an administrator works, or sometimes, does not work. Working with an estate planning attorney that the siblings can agree upon is better, as the attorney has a fiduciary and ethical obligation to the estate. While state laws usually hold the administrator responsible to the standard of care of a “reasonable, prudent” individual, not all will agree what is reasonable and prudent.

One note about the loan/gift: if the mother helped a brother to qualify for a mortgage, it is possible that a “Gift Letter” was created to satisfy the bank or the resident’s association. Assuming this was not a notarized loan agreement, the administrator may rule that the $35,000 was a gift. Personal loans should always be recorded in a notarized agreement.

This family’s disaster serves as a good lesson for anyone who does not have an estate plan. Siblings rarely agree, and a properly prepared estate plan protects more than your assets. It also protects your children from losing each other in a fight over your property.

Reference: MarketWatch (April 4, 2021) “My parents died of COVID-19 and left no will. My brother lives rent-free in their home and borrowed $35,000. What now?”