Estate Planning Blog Articles

Estate & Business Planning Law Firm Serving the Providence & Cranston, RI Areas

What Happens If You Become Incapacitated?

If you became incapacitated and advance planning had been done, your family will have the legal documents you need. Just as importantly, they will know what your wishes are for incapacity and end-of-life care. If there was no planning, your loved ones will have to start with a lengthy application to the court to have someone named a guardian. They are a person who has legal authority to make medical decisions on your behalf.

Having a plan in place beforehand is always better, explains the article “If I become incapacitated, who makes healthcare decisions?” from Waterdown Daily Times.

Another reason to plan ahead: the court does not require the guardian to be a family member. Anyone can request a guardian to be appointed for another incapacitated individual, whether incapacity is a result of illness or injury. If no planning has been done, a guardianship must be established.

This is not an easy or inexpensive process. A petition must be filed, and the person in question must be legally declared incapacitated. In some cases, these filings are done secretly, and a guardianship maybe established without the person or their family even knowing it has occurred.

There are also many cases where one family member believes they are better suited for the task, and the family becomes embroiled in controversy about who should serve as the guardian.

The entire problem can be resolved by working with an experienced estate planning attorney long before incapacity becomes an issue. A comprehensive estate plan will include a plan for distribution of assets (Last Will and Testament), Power of Attorney, Healthcare Power of Attorney and a Living Will.

These last two documents work together to describe your wishes for end-of-life care, medical treatment and any other medical issues you would want conveyed to healthcare providers.

Unfortunately, the pandemic revealed just how important it is to have these matters taken care of. If you did create these documents in the last few years, it would be wise to review them, since the people in key roles may have changed. While the idea of being on a respirator may have at one time been a clear and firm no, you may feel otherwise now.

A Healthcare Power of Attorney is an advance directive used to name a person, who becomes your “agent,” to make healthcare decisions. If there is no Healthcare Power of Attorney, physicians will ask a family member to make a decision. If no family can be reached in a timely manner, the court may be asked to appoint a legal guardian to be the decision-maker. In an urgent situation, the physician will have to make the decision, and it may not be the decision you wanted.

The Living Will explains your wishes for end-of-life care. For instance, if you become seriously ill and don’t want a feeding tube or artificial heart machine, you can say so in this document. You can even state who you do and do not wish to visit you when you are sick.

The best advice is to have a complete estate plan, including these vital documents, created by an experienced estate planning attorney. If you have an estate plan and have not reviewed it in the past three to five years, a review would be best for you and your loved ones.

Reference: Watertown Daily Times (April 14, 2022) “If I become incapacitated, who makes healthcare decisions?”

What Should a Power of Attorney Include?

The pandemic has taught us how swiftly our lives can change, and interest in having a power of attorney (POA) has increased as a result. But you need to know how this powerful document is and what it’s limits are. A recent article from Forbes titled “4 Power of Attorney Clauses You Need To Focus On” explains it all.

The agent acting under the authority of your POA only controls assets in your name. Assets in a trust are not owned by you, so your agent can’t access them. The trustee (you or a successor trustee, if you are incapacitated) appointed in your trust document would have control of the trust and its assets.

There are several different types of POAs. The Durable Power of Attorney goes into effect the moment it is signed and continues to be valid if you become incapacitated. The Springing Power of Attorney becomes valid only when you become incapacitated.

Most estate planning attorneys will advise you to use the Durable Power of Attorney, as the Springing Power of Attorney requires extra steps (perhaps even a court) to determine your capacity.

All authority under a Power of Attorney ceases to be effective when you die.

There are challenges to the POA. Deciding who will be your agent is not always easy. The agent has complete control over your financial life outside of assets held in trust. If you chose to appoint two different people to share the responsibility and they don’t get along, time-sensitive decisions could become tangled and delayed.

Determine gifting parameters. Will your agent be authorized to make gifts? Depending upon your estate, you may want your agent to be able to make gifts, which is useful if you want to reduce estate taxes or if you’ll need to apply for government benefits in the near future. You can also give directions as to who gets gifts and how much. Most people limit the size of gifts to the annual exclusion amount of $15,000.

Can the POA agent change beneficiary designations? Chances are a lot of your assets will pass to loved ones through a beneficiary designation: life insurance, investment, retirement accounts, etc. Do you want your POA agent to have the ability to change these? Most people do not, and the POA must specifically state this. Your estate planning attorney will be able to custom design your POA to protect your beneficiary designations.

Can the POA amend a trust? Depending upon your circumstances, you may or may not want your POA to have the ability to make changes to trusts. This would allow the POA to change beneficiaries and change the terms of the trust. Most folks have planned their trusts to work with their estate plan, and do not wish a POA agent to have the power to make changes.

The POA and the guardian. A POA may be used to name a guardian, who would be appointed by the court. This person is often the same person as the POA, with the idea that the same person you trust enough to be your POA would also be trusted to be your guardian.

The POA is a more powerful document than people think. Downloading a POA and hoping for the best can undo a lifetime of financial and estate planning. It’s best to have a POA created that is uniquely drafted for your family and your situation.

Reference: Forbes (July 19, 2021) “4 Power of Attorney Clauses You Need To Focus On”

If I Move to a New State, Do I Need to Update My Estate Plan?

The U.S. Constitution requires states to give “full faith and credit” to the laws of other states. As a result, your will, trust, power of attorney, and health care proxy executed in one state should be honored in every other state.

Although that’s the way it should work, the practical realities are different and depend on the document, says Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “Moving to a New State? Be Sure to Update Your Estate Plan.”

Your last will should still be legally valid in the new state. However, the new state may have different probate laws that make certain provisions of the will invalid. This can also happen with revocable trusts.

However, it’s not as common with powers of attorney and health care directives. These estate planning documents should be honored from state to state, but sometimes banks, medical professionals, and financial and health care institutions will refuse to accept the documents and forms. They may have their own, as is the case frequently with banks.

You should also know that the execution requirements of your estate planning documents may be different, depending on the state.

For example, there are some states that require witnesses on durable powers of attorney, and others that do not. A state that requires witnesses may not allow a power of attorney without witnesses to be used to convey real estate, even though the document is perfectly valid in the state where it was drafted and signed.

With health care proxies, other states may use different terms for the document, such as “durable power of attorney for health care” or “advance directive.”

When you move to a different state, it’s also a smart move to consult with an experienced estate planning attorney to make certain that your estate plan in general is up to date. There are also other changes in circumstances—like a change in income or marital status—that can also have an impact on your estate plan. Moreover, there may be practical changes you may want to make. For example, you may want to change your trustee or agent under a power of attorney based on which family members will be closer in proximity.

For all these reasons, when you move out of state it’s wise to have an experienced estate planning attorney in your new home state review your estate planning documents.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (Jan. 26, 2021) “Moving to a New State? Be Sure to Update Your Estate Plan”

power of attorney rejected

What Happens If Power of Attorney Documents are Rejected?

It is frustrating when a bank or other financial institution declines a Power of Attorney. It might be that the form is too old, the bank wants their own form to be used, or there seems to be a question about the validity of the form. A recent article titled “What to know if your bank refuses your power of attorney” from The Mercury discusses the best way to prevent this situation, and if it occurs, how to fix it.

The most important thing to know is just downloading a form from the internet and hoping it works is always a bad idea. There are detailed rules and requirements about notices and acknowledgments and other requirements. Specific language is required. It is different from state to state. It’s not a big deal if the person who is giving the power of attorney is alive, well and mentally competent to get another POA created, but if they are physically or legally unable to sign a document, this becomes a problem.

There have been many laws and court cases that defined the specific language that must be used, how the document must be witnessed before it can be executed, etc. In one case in Pennsylvania, a state employee was given a power of attorney to sign by her husband. She was incapacitated at the time after a car accident and a stroke. He used the POA to change her retirement options and then filed for divorce.

At issue was whether she could present evidence that the POA was void when she signed it, invalidating her estranged husband’s option and his filing for her benefits.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that a third party (the bank) could not rely on a void power of attorney submitted by an agent, even when the institution did not know that it was void at the time it was accepted. For banks, this was a clear sign that any POAs had to be vetted very carefully to avoid liability. There was a subsequent fix to the law that provided immunity to a bank or anyone who accepts a POA in good faith and without actual knowledge that it may be invalid. However, it includes the ability for a bank or other institution or person to request an agent’s certification or get an affidavit to ensure that the agent is acting with proper authority.

It may be better to have both a POA from a person and one that uses the bank or financial institution’s own form. It’s not required by law, but the person from the bank may be far more comfortable accepting both forms, because they know one has been through their legal department and won’t create a problem for the bank or for them as an employee.

There are occasions when it is necessary to fight the bank or financial institution’s decision. This is especially the case, if the person is incapacitated and your POA is valid.

If there is any doubt about whether the POA would be accepted by the bank, now is the time to check and review the language and formatting with your estate planning or elder law attorney to be sure that the form is valid and will be acceptable.

Reference: The Mercury (July 7, 2020) “What to know if your bank refuses your power of attorney”

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