Estate Planning Blog Articles

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Can a Dementia Patient Sign Legal Documents?

Once a diagnosis of dementia has been received, families need to immediately begin advance care planning, as explained in a recent article titled “Can Someone With Dementia Sign Legal Documents” from Health News. Depending on their medical condition, some patients with dementia, particularly in early stages, may be capable of making their own decisions regarding legal decisions. However, discussions must begin early, so the person can be involved and understand the planning process.

When family members don’t know the wishes of their loved ones, they are more likely to experience distress and difficulties in making decisions. Families report feelings of guilt, self-doubt and stress while making advance care decisions with no input from their loved ones.

Laws concerning advance care vary from state to state. An elder law attorney can help older adults interpret state laws, plan how their wishes will be carried out and understand financial options.

Advance care planning focuses on both long-term care and planning for funeral arrangements. These documents typically include a durable power of attorney for healthcare, a living will and Do-Not Resuscitate orders, often called a DNR. Depending on state law, there may also be a MOLST document, short for Medical Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment.

The durable power of attorney for healthcare names another person who can serve as a proxy for the person with dementia, if and when the person is not able to make informed healthcare decisions for themselves.

A living will states a person’s wishes for end-of-life treatment. This documents their views about specific medical procedures including but not limited to dialysis, tube feeding or blood transfusions. If the person should become unconscious, then families may make treatment decisions based on what their loved one wanted.

A Do-Not-Resuscitate order is placed in a patient’s medical chart if the person does not want to receive CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) if their heart stops or breathing ceases. This must be signed by a doctor before it is placed in the chart.

Planning for a funeral is a difficult task. However, it will alleviate stress and possible guilt in the future. People with dementia can tell their loved ones in advance what they want regarding a funeral or memorial service, burial, or cremation. If any arrangements are already in place, such as the purchase of a burial plot, providing details to family members will make it easier to manage.

Advance care planning can be a sensitive topic but seeking legal advice early on is useful so the family can focus on making sure their loved one has the care they want. Involving the person with dementia in the process is respectful. An elder lawyer attorney will be able to guide the family to ensure planning is done properly.

Reference: Health News (Jan. 11, 2023) “Can Someone With Dementia Sign Legal Documents”

What Power Does an Executor Have?

Being asked to serve as an executor is a big compliment with potential pitfalls, advises the recent article “How to Prepare to Be an Executor of an Estate” from U.S. News & World Report. You are being asked because you are considered trustworthy and able to handle complex tasks. That’s flattering, of course, but there’s a lot to know before making a final decision about taking on the job.

An executor of an estate helps file paperwork, close accounts, distribute assets of the deceased, deal with probate and any court filings and navigate family dynamics. Some of the tasks include:

  • Locating critical documents, like the will, any trusts, deeds, vehicle titles, etc.
  • Obtaining death certificates.
  • Overseeing funeral arrangements and memorial services, if any.
  • Filing the will in probate court.
  • Creating an estate bank account, after obtaining an estate tax number (EIN).
  • Notifying organizations, including Social Security, pension accounts, etc.
  • Paying creditors.
  • Distributing assets.
  • Overseeing the sale or transfer of real estate
  • Filing estate tax returns and final tax returns.

If you are asked to become the executor of an estate for a loved one, it’s a good idea to gather as much information as possible while the person is still living. It will be far easier to tackle the tasks, if you have been set up to succeed. Find out where their estate planning documents are and read the documents to make sure you understand them. If you don’t understand, ask, and keep asking until you do. Similarly, obtain information about all assets, including joint assets. Find out if there are any family members who may pose a challenge to the estate.

Today’s assets include digital assets. Ask for a complete list of the person’s online accounts, usernames and passwords. You will also need access to their devices: desktop computer, laptop, tablet, phone and smart watch. Discuss what they want to happen to each account and see if there is an option for you to become a co-owner of the account or a legacy contact.

Many opt to have an estate planning attorney manage some or all of these tasks, as they can be very overwhelming. Frankly, it’s hard to administer an estate at the same time you’re grieving the loss of a loved one.

As executor, you are a fiduciary, meaning you’re legally required to put the deceased’s interests above your own. This includes managing the estate’s assets. If the person owned a home, you would need to secure the property, pay the mortgage and/or property taxes and maintain the property until it is sold or transferred to an heir. Financial accounts need to be managed, including investment accounts.

The amount of time this process will take, depends on the complexity and size of the estate. Most estates take at least twelve months to complete all of the administrative work. It is a big commitment and can feel like a second job.

A few things vary by state. Convicted felons are never permitted to serve as executors, regardless of what the will says. A sole executor must be a U.S. citizen, although a non-citizen can be a co-executor, if the other co-executor is a citizen. Rules also vary from state to state regarding being paid for your time. Most states permit a percentage of the size of the estate, which must be considered earned income and reported on tax returns.

Be very thorough and careful in documenting every decision made as the executor to protect yourself from any future challenges. This is one job where trying to do it on your own could have long-term effects on your relationship with the family and financial liability, so take it seriously. If it’s too much, an estate planning attorney can help.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (Dec. 22, 2021) “How to Prepare to Be an Executor of an Estate”

What Items Should Not Be Stored in a Safe Deposit Box?

We’re reminded daily about living in a digital world where anything of importance is stored in the cloud. However, if you were thinking about getting rid of your safe deposit box, says the article “9 Things You’ll Regret Keeping in a Safe Deposit Box,” from Kiplinger, think again.

By all means keep your prized possessions like baseball cards in a safe deposit box. Some documents also do belong in a bank vault. However, it’s not the right place for everything.

Even if the bank’s ATMs are open 24/7, access to the safe deposit box is limited to hours when the bank is open. If you need something in an emergency on a weekend, holiday or at night, you’re stuck. The same goes for natural disasters, which seem to be happening more frequently in certain parts of the country. Reduced operations and branch closures happened because of the pandemic and today’s hiring problems might mean a longer wait even during regular business hours at a bank branch.

Here’s a look at what not to put in your safe deposit box:

Cash money. Most banks are very clear: cash should not be kept in a safe deposit box. Read your contract with the bank. The FDIC does not protect cash, unless it’s in a bank account.

Passports. Unless you travel often enough to keep a passport next to your wallet, it may be tempting to put it in the safety deposit box. However, if an emergency arises, or you get a great last minute travel bargain, you won’t have quick access to your passport.

An original will. Keeping copies of your will in a safe deposit box is fine, but not the original. After death, the bank seals the safe deposit box until an executor can prove they have the legal right to access it.

Letters of Intent. A letter of intent, or letter of instruction, is a letter to your family, telling them what your wishes are for your funeral or memorial service and giving details on specific bequests. However, if it’s locked up in a safe deposit box, your final wishes may not see the light of day for months. Keep the letter of intent with your original will. You might also wish to send the letter of intent to anyone who is designated to receive a specific item.

Power of Attorney. Similar to the will, the POA needs to be accessible any time, day, or night. Keep it with your original will and provide copies to anyone who might need it. The same goes for your Advance Directives for Health Care or Living Will. It won’t do you any good to say you don’t want to be kept alive on a heart and lung machine if your agents can’t get to these documents.

Valuables, Jewelry or Collectibles. The FDIC does not insure safe deposit boxes or their contents. There are no federal laws governing safe deposit boxes and no law says the bank has to reimburse you for stolen items. Protect valuables with a supplemental policy or a rider to your homeowner’s insurance policy and keep them at home.

Spare House Keys. How likely are you to be able to get to your house keys even if the bank is open, if your key to the safe deposit box is in your home? Enough said.

Illegal, Dangerous, or Liquid Items. When you opened your safe deposit box, you signed a contract listing what you may and may not keep in a safe deposit box. Firearms, explosive, illegal drugs, and hazardous materials are among the things prohibited from being kept in a safe deposit box. The same goes for less dramatic items: if you have a collection of rare whiskey, keep it at home.

Reference: Kiplinger (Sep. 24, 2021) “9 Things You’ll Regret Keeping in a Safe Deposit Box”

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