Estate Planning Blog Articles

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Can I Avoid Financial Exploitation?

AARP’s recent article entitled “The Legal Consequences of Elder Fraud Can Be Steepreports that romance scams are on the rise. Older, lonely, or heartbroken adults are common targets. In Florida in 2020, $40.1 million was stolen from victims who were victims of a crime ring or bad actor posing as a potential suitor.

Some people lose their whole life savings in a matter of months.

Many other financial crimes are carried out by fraudsters, such as phony investment scams, phone and gift card scams, lottery scams, Medicare and Social Security scams and more.

There is no limit on how creative these criminals can be. Family, friends, and caregivers are also not immune from skimming funds for their own use.

The average amount lost per victim is $34,000. When a person is acting as a fiduciary, the number soars to $83,000. The older the victim, the greater the average amount of stolen assets.

As soon as exploitation is suspected or confirmed, action should be taken. When exploitation is suspected, take these steps to help law enforcement investigate and prosecute the criminals:

  1. Talk to the victim, who may not be aware of the exploitation
  2. Contact the authorities and follow their instructions
  3. Notify financial advisers who may be able to put a freeze on accounts
  4. Document the victim’s interactions with the suspect
  5. Talk to all witnesses to interactions between the suspect and victim; and
  6. Talk to an elder law attorney who can discuss your legal options regarding guardianship or conservatorship if the victim lacks capacity to handle their own affairs.

Reference: AARP (Feb. 22, 2022) “The Legal Consequences of Elder Fraud Can Be Steep”

How Is Florida Creating a Guardianship Database?

The Florida House voted 117-0 to grant final legislative approval to HB 1349 by Rep. Linda Chaney, R-St. Petersburg. Sen. Jennifer Bradley, R-Orange Park, sponsored the companion, SB 1710.

The Florida Bar’s recent article entitled “Bill Creates a Statewide Guardianship Database” reports that the measure will create a statewide database that will help with future reforms.

“This amendment establishes a guardianship database that we first heard last week,” Chaney said. “So thank you for recognizing this as a first step, and for supporting it, and I hope that you can help me take it to the next step.”

The bill would require the Florida Clerks of Court Operations Corporation and the clerks of court to create a statewide database of guardian and guardianship case information by July 2023. The database would be accessible only by judges, magistrates, court clerks and certain court personnel. It would include the registration status and “substantiated” disciplinary history of professional guardians. In addition, the bill would require the Office of Public and Professional Guardians to post searchable profiles of registered professional guardians on a website by July 2023.

Profiles would provide whether the professional guardian meets educational and bonding requirements, the number and type of substantiated complaints filed against the guardian and any disciplinary actions imposed by the Department of Elder Affairs. Data related to individual wards would be “deidentified” to protect their privacy. The restriction is needed to protect wards.

“The reason for that is there are times when family members have good intentions, and family members have bad intentions,” Chaney said. “So, we didn’t want them to have full access to the ward’s information, and maybe be part of a problem.”

The Florida Court Clerks and Comptrollers organized the taskforce in the summer of 2021 to start addressing the issue. The group included legislators, court clerks, court system employees who work with guardianships, lawyers from the Elder Law and Real Property, Probate and Trust Law sections, consumer advocates, a former ward and others. The task force was given an open-ended mission to make recommendations for improving the system.

In addition to the database, the taskforce suggested creating a permanent legislative or state body to suggest regular updates to the law.

The task force also proposed barring hospitals and nursing homes from recommending a specific guardian when they file for a guardianship, including consideration of powers of attorney and advanced directives previously signed by a ward when a guardianship is set up, and upgrading training and education for everyone who is involved in the guardianship process.

Reference: Florida Bar (March 14, 2022) “Bill Creates a Statewide Guardianship Database”

Does Marriage have an Impact on a Will?

It is very difficult to challenge a marriage once it has occurred, since the capacity needed to marry is relatively low. Even a person who is under conservatorship because they are severely incapacitated may marry, unless there is a court order stating otherwise, says the article “Estate Planning: On Being Married, estate planning and administration” from Lake Country News. This unfortunate fact allows scammers to woo and wed their victims.

What about individuals who think they are married when they are not? A “putative” spouse is someone who genuinely believed they were married, although the marriage is invalid, void, or voidable because of a legal defect. An example of a legal defect is bigamy, if the person is already married when they marry another person.

Once a couple is married, they owe each other a duty to treat each other fairly. In certain states, they are prohibited from taking unfair advantage of each other. Depending on the state of residence, property is also owned in different ways. In a community property state, such as California, marital earnings and anything acquired while married is presumed to be community property.

In a community property state, debts incurred before or during the marriage are also shared. In a number of states, marriage is sufficient reason for a creditor to come after the assets of a spouse, if they married someone with pre-marital debts.

There are exceptions. If a married person puts their earnings during marriage into a separate bank account their spouse is not able to access, then those deposited earnings are not available for debtor spouse’s debts incurred before the marriage took place.

If a married person dies without a will, also known as “intestate,” the surviving spouse is the next of kin.  In most cases, they will inherit the assets of the decedent. If the decedent had children from a prior marriage, they may end up with nothing.

These are all reasons why couples should have frank discussions about finances, including assets and debts, before marrying. Coming into the marriage with debt may not be a problem for some people, but they should be advised beforehand.

A pre-nuptial agreement can state the terms of the couple’s financial health as individuals and declare their intentions. An experienced estate planning attorney can create a pre-nuptial to align with the couple’s estate plan, so the estate plan and the pre-nuptial work together.

Marriage brings rights and responsibilities which impact life and death for a couple. Starting a marriage based on full disclosure and proper planning clears the way for a focus on togetherness, and not solely the business side of marriage.

Reference: Lake Country News (Feb. 12, 2022) “Estate Planning: On Being Married, estate planning and administration”

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 Does a Conservatorship Work?

Kiplinger’s recent article titled “Britney Spears’ Sad Song … Warning: This Could Happen to You” says that conservatorship is a topic that’s been in the news lately with Britney’s recent court battle.

In Britney’s case, while there has not been any evidence alleged of actual fraud or financial abuse in her conservatorship, she lost nearly all control over her finances, her business affairs and the most personal aspects of her life.

She also doesn’t want her father to be the person to hold that much power or control over her life.

A judge can take charge of an individual’s personal and financial decisions and appoint a third party to make decisions almost on an unlimited basis. These proceedings can exact a significant emotional toll and be tremendously expensive and time-consuming.

Conservatorship can happen to anyone, if and when you’re too disabled (due to an accident or illness) or too incompetent (due to infirmity of mind, old age or dementia, or a similar condition) to handle your own affairs.

If your estate plan addresses this with a chain of command to act on your behalf, no formal court proceedings would be required. Your wishes can be honored, and all the drama like that which Britney Spears has endured can be avoided.

If you are under age 60, there is a four to five times greater likelihood that you’ll become disabled, due to an accident or illness, for a period of more than one year, than your chances of dying. This is because modern medicine can often prevent death but not cure the illness or condition causing the disability. If you’re over age 60, there’s a 70% chance that, during your remaining lifetime, you’ll be too disabled or incompetent to act for yourself, for a period of at least two to 2½ years.

However, Britney Spears’ battle to end her court-ordered conservatorship took an unexpected turn recently, when her father and the conservator of her estate, Jamie Spears, filed a petition to end the arrangement. Mr. Spears cited his daughter’s pleas at two separate court hearings over the summer in his request to terminate the 13-year conservatorship.

“Recent events related to this conservatorship have called into question whether circumstances have changed to such an extent that grounds for establishment of a conservatorship may no longer exist,” the filing states.

Reference: Kiplinger (July 14, 2021) “Britney Spears’ Sad Song … Warning: This Could Happen to You”

What Is Elder Law?

With medical advancements, the average age of both males and females has increased incredibly.  The issue of a growing age population is also deemed to be an issue legally. That is why there are elder law attorneys.

Recently Heard’s recent article entitled “What Are the Major Categories That Make Up Elder Law?” explains that the practice of elder law has three major categories:

  • Estate planning and administration, including tax issues
  • Medicaid, disability, and long-term care issues; and
  • Guardianship, conservatorship, and commitment issues.

Estate Planning and Administration. Estate planning is the process of knowing who gets what. With a will in place, you can make certain that the process is completed smoothly. You can be relieved to know that your estate will be distributed as you intended. Work with an experienced estate planning attorney to help with all the legalities, including taxes.

Medicaid, Disability, and Long-Term Care Issues. Elder law evolved as a special area of practice because of the aging population. As people grow older, they have more medically-related issues. Medicaid is a state-funded program that supports those with little or no income. The disability and long-term care issues are plans for those who need around-the-clock care. Elder law attorneys help coordinate all aspects of elder care, such as Medicare eligibility, special trust creation and choosing long-term care options.

Guardianship, Conservatorship, and Commitment Matters. This category is fairly straightforward. When a person ages, a disability or mental impairment may mean that he or she cannot act rationally or make decisions on his or her own. A court may appoint an individual to serve as the guardian over the person or as the conservator the estate, when it determines that it is required. The most common form of disability requiring conservatorship is Alzheimer’s, and a court may appoint an attorney to be the conservator, if there is no appropriate relative available.

Reference: Recently Heard (May 26, 2021) “What Are the Major Categories That Make Up Elder Law?”

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Baseball Champion Sues Daughter-In-Law, denies having Dementia

Eighty-two-year-old Giants great Orlando Cepeda filed a lawsuit against his daughter-in-law Camille Cepeda alleging elder financial abuse, fraud and infliction of emotional distress, as reported in the article “Giants great Orlando Cepeda denies having dementia, sues daughter-in-law for fraud” from the San Francisco Chronicle. He also accused her of negligence in handling his finances, after giving her power of attorney in 2018.

Cepeda accuses Camille of spending his money on personal expenses, including lease payments on a $62,000 Lexus, a Louis Vuitton handbag, expensive wine and taking out at least $24,000 in cash from his accounts. It also claims that she has placed all of his baseball memorabilia in a storage locker and will not give him the key or the location of the locker. That includes his National League Most Valuable Player trophy, which he wants back.

This is the latest news from a dispute that began after the Hall of Famer married his second wife, Nydia. They had two of Cepeda’s four sons, including Ali Cepeda, who is married to Camille. The parents are now not speaking to their son, and some of the brothers, four in total, have taken sides and are not speaking to each other.

Cepeda granted his daughter-in-law power of attorney in April 2018, two months after he suffered a heart attack and irreversible brain damage caused by oxygen deprivation. She was to have access to his accounts and pay his bills. Before the heart attack, she had handled his financial and business affairs.

On May 29, Camille filed a petition with the court seeking conservatorship of Cepeda, stating that he has dementia and cannot make his own financial decisions. Two of Cepeda’s sons, including Camille’s husband Ali, filed papers supporting her petition.

In Cepeda’s response, he cited two neuropsychological reports, including one done in May, that declared that he was fit to make his own medical decisions and understands all but the most complex financial issues. Cepeda says that his daughter-in-law filed for conservatorship to cover up the fraud that he is alleging in the lawsuit. He says that he does not need a conservator, and if anyone should have that role, it would be his wife Nydia.

The lawsuit filed by Cepeda offers a glimpse into why he believes she wants conservatorship, saying he doesn’t have the capacity to understand the nature and consequences of his remarriage, nor his decision to remove Camille as power of attorney and grant it to Nydia.

The suit alleges that Camille was opposed to the marriage from the start and even suggested they stage a fake ceremony that would not be legally sanctioned.

Cepeda’s lawsuit seeks damages, legal fees and demands that Camille return his memorabilia and all financial records she has allegedly refused to provide to account for how she handed his money. The suit also cites a $62,000 withdrawal to pay Cepeda’s tax bill, which was not actually paid. The filing says she was negotiating with the IRS, but she will not provide the documentation that he needs to settle with the government. Nor did she pay a medical bill for $6,800, although she did cash a check from the insurance company that was sent to pay for it.

Cepeda remains hopeful that the entire matter may be settled, before the case returns to court.

“It’s very painful,” Cepeda told a reporter. “I love my family. I love my kids. But this is life. You have to do what you have to do.”

Reference: San Francisco Chronicle (June 26, 2020) “Giants great Orlando Cepeda denies having dementia, sues daughter-in-law for fraud”

Here’s Why You Need an Estate Plan

It’s always the right time to do your estate planning, but it’s most critical when you have beneficiaries who are minors or with special needs, says the Capital Press in the recent article, “Ag Finance: Why you need to do estate planning.”

While it’s likely that most adult children can work things out, even if it’s costly and time-consuming in probate, minor young children must have protections in place. Wills are frequently written, so the estate goes to the child when he reaches age 18. However, few teens can manage big property at that age. A trust can help, by directing that the property will be held for him by a trustee or executor until a set age, like 25 or 30.

Probate is the default process to administer an estate after someone’s death, when a will or other documents are presented in court and an executor is appointed to manage it. It also gives creditors a chance to present claims for money owed to them. Distribution of assets will occur only after all proper notices have been issued, and all outstanding bills have been paid.

Probate can be expensive. However, wise estate planning can help most families avoid this and ensure the transition of wealth and property in a smooth manner. Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney about establishing a trust. Farmers can name themselves as the beneficiaries during their lifetime, and instruct to whom it will pass after their death. A living trust can be amended or revoked at any time, if circumstances change.

The title of the farm is transferred to the trust with the farm’s former owner as trustee. With a trust, it makes it easier to avoid probate because nothing’s in his name, and the property can transition to the beneficiaries without having to go to court. Living trusts also help in the event of incapacity or a disease, like Alzheimer’s, to avoid conservatorship (guardianship of an adult who loses capacity). It can also help to decrease capital gains taxes, since the property transfers before their death.

If you have several children, but only two work with you on the farm, an attorney can help you with how to divide an estate that is land rich and cash poor.

Reference: Capital Press (December 20, 2018) “Ag Finance: Why you need to do estate planning”