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Estate Planning and Elder Law Blog

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Young and Ill, without Advance Directives

Young and Ill, without Advance Directives

When you are a child, your parents serve as your decision makers. They have ultimate say in where you go to school, what extracurricular activities you partake in and where, and how, you should be treated in the event of a medical emergency. While most parents continue to play a huge role in their children’s lives long after they reach adulthood, they lose legal decision-making authority on that 18th birthday. Most young adults don't contemplate who can act on their behalf once this transfer of power occurs, and consequently they fail to prepare advance directives.

In the event of a medical emergency, if a young adult is conscious and competent to make decisions, the doctors will ask the patient about his or her preferred course of treatment. Even if the individual is unable to speak, he or she may still be able to communicate by using hand signals or even blinking one’s eyes in response to questions.

But what happens in instances where the young adult is incapacitated and unable to make decisions? Who will decide on the best course of treatment? Without advance directives, the answer to this question can be unclear, often causing the family of the incapacitated person emotional stress and financial hardship.

In instances of life threatening injury or an illness that requires immediate care, the doctors will likely do all they can to treat the patient as aggressively as possible, relying on the standards of care to decide on the best course of treatment. However, if there is no "urgent" need to treat they will look to someone else who has authority to make those decisions on behalf of the young individual. Most states have specific statutes that list who has priority to make decisions on behalf of an incapacitated individual, when there are no advance directives in place. Many states favor a spouse, adult children, and parents in a list of priority. Doctors will generally try to get in touch with the patient’s "next of kin" to provide the direction necessary for treatment.

A number of recent high-profile court cases remind us of the dangers of relying on state statues to determine who has the authority to make healthcare decisions on behalf of the ill. What happens if the parents of the incapacitated disagree on the best course of treatment? Or what happens if the patient is estranged from her spouse but technically still married- will he have ultimate say? For most, the thought is unsettling.

To avoid the unknown, it’s highly recommended that all adults, regardless of age, work with an estate planning attorney to prepare advance directives including a health care power of attorney (or health care proxy) as well as a living will which outline their wishes and ensure compliance with all applicable state statutes.


Saturday, February 22, 2014

Can I Get in Trouble with the IRS for Trying to Reduce the Amount of Estate Tax that I Owe?

Can I Get In Trouble With the IRS for Trying to Reduce the Amount of Estate Tax That I Owe?

You’ve likely heard that one of the many benefits of estate planning is reducing the amount of federal, and state, taxes owed upon your passing. While it may seem like estate tax planning must run afoul of IRS rules, with the proper strategies, this is far from the case.

It is very common for an individual to take steps to try to reduce the amount of federal estate taxes that his or her "estate" will be responsible for after the person's death. As you may know, you may pass an unlimited amount of assets to your spouse without incurring any federal estate taxes. You may pass $5.25 million to non-spouse beneficiaries without incurring federal estate tax and if your spouse died before you, and if you have taken certain steps to add your spouse's $5.25 million exemption to your own, you may have $10.5 million that you can pass tax free to non-spouse beneficiaries.

If your estate is still larger than these exemption amounts you should seek out a qualified estate planning attorney. There may be legal, legitimate planning techniques that will help reduce the taxable value of your estate in order to pass more assets to your loved ones upon your death and lessen the impact of the estate taxes. After your death, the duty normally falls on your executor (or perhaps a successor trustee) to file the appropriate tax returns and pay the necessary taxes. Failure to properly plan for potential estate taxes will significantly limit what your executor/trustee will be able to accomplish after your passing.

If you have taken steps to try to reduce the taxes owed, it is possible that the IRS may challenge the reported value or try to throw out the method you used. This does not mean that the executor/trustee will be in trouble; it just means that they will need to be prepared to support their position with the IRS and take it through an audit or even a tax court (or other appropriate court system). In the event of a challenge, a good attorney will be critical to ensure all of the necessary steps are taken.


Friday, February 21, 2014

8 Things to Consider When Selecting a Caregiver for Your Senior Parent

8 Things to Consider When Selecting a Caregiver for Your Senior Parent

As a child of a senior citizen, you are faced with many choices in helping to care for your parent. You want the very best care for your mother or father, but you also have to take into consideration your personal needs, family obligations and finances.

When choosing a caregiver for a loved one, there are a number of things to take into consideration.

  1. Time. Do you require part- or full-time care for your parent? Are you looking for a caregiver to come into your home? Will your parent live with the caregiver or will you put your parent into a senior care facility? According to the National Alliance for Caregiving, 58 percent of care recipients live in their own home and 20 percent live with the caregiver. You should consider your current arrangement but also take time to identify some alternatives in the event that the requirements of care should change in the future.
  2. Family ties. If you have siblings, they probably want to be involved in the decision of your parent’s care. If you have a sibling who lives far away, sharing in the care responsibilities or decision-making process may prove to be a challenge. It’s important that you open up the lines of communication with your parents and your siblings so everyone is aware and in agreement about the best course of care.
  3. Specialized care. Some caregivers and care facilities specialize in specific conditions or treatments. For instance, there are special residences for those with Alzheimer’s and others for those suffering from various types of cancer. If your parent suffers from a disease or physical ailment, you may want to take this into consideration during the selection process
  4. Social interaction. Many seniors fear that caregivers or care facilities will be isolating, limiting their social interaction with friends and loved ones. It’s important to keep this in mind throughout the process and identify the activities that he or she may enjoy such as playing games, exercising or cooking. Make sure to inquire about the caregiver’s ability to allow social interaction. Someone who is able to accommodate your parent’s individual preferences or cultural activities will likely be a better fit for your mother or father.
  5. Credentials. Obviously, it is important to make sure that the person or team who cares for your parent has the required credentials. Run background checks and look at facility reviews to ensure you are dealing with licensed, accredited individuals. You may choose to run an independent background check or check references for added peace of mind.
  6. Scope of care. If you are looking for a live-in caregiver, that person is responsible for more than just keeping an eye on your mother or father—he or she may be responsible for preparing meals, distributing medication, transporting your parent, or managing the home. Facilities typically have multidisciplinary personnel to care for residents, but an individual will likely need to complete a variety of tasks and have a broad skill set to do it all.
  7. Money.Talk to your parent about the financial arrangements that he or she may have in place. If this isn’t an option, you will likely need to discuss the options with your siblings or your parent’s lawyer—or check your mother’s or father’s estate plan—to find out more about available assets and how to make financial choices pertaining to your parent’s care.
  8. Prepare. Upon meeting the prospective caregiver or visiting a facility, it is important to have questions prepared ahead of time so you can gather all of the information necessary to make an informed choice. Finally, be prepared to listen to your parent’s concerns or observations so you can consider their input in the decision. If he or she is able, they will likely want to make the choice themselves.

Choosing a caregiver for your parent is an important decision that weighs heavily on most adult children but with the right planning and guidance, you can make the best choice for your family. Once you find the right person, make sure to follow up as care continues and to check in with your mother or father to ensure the caregiver is the perfect fit.

 


Thursday, February 20, 2014

Is a Copy of a Will Sufficient?

Is a copy of a will sufficient?

Many people keep their important documents at home where they are easily accessible. It’s not at all uncommon to find people with a filing cabinet or even a shoe box containing passports, account statements, deeds, tax returns, birth certificates and social security cards. Wills are often added to these files once the estate planning process is completed. In choosing to store your important estate planning documents at home, however, you risk having the originals lost or destroyed in the case of fire, flooding or theft. So what happens if the original version of your will is lost or ruined?

Generally when a person dies, state law determines what must happen in the state probate proceeding. In most cases, the "original" of the will must be submitted to the probate court in the county where the person resided. If the original of the will cannot be located and provided to the court, there likely is a provision in your state's probate code that would permit the submission of a photocopy of that signed will.

In many cases, the attorney who prepared the will maintains a copy of the estate planning documents. Assuming, that the copy your attorney has could be submitted to the probate court, additional steps may need to be taken, and additional pleadings prepared in order to submit a copy.

Should you lose the original copy of your will, the best practice would be for you to execute a new will which would make things easier for your family and loved ones upon your death. In that case there would be better assurances that your wishes were followed and carried out. Preparing a new will should not take much time for your attorney. He or she likely still has the word processing file on his or her computer, and could easily modify it for you to execute again. If for some reason this is not done, you may wish to execute a document stating the original was destroyed in a flood or fire but that you did not intend to revoke it. However, it’s important to note that this may not be effective in every instance as many states have very strict requirements in terms of requiring originals and execution formalities.

To keep the originals of your estate planning documents safe, even in the face of disaster, you might consider purchasing a fireproof/waterproof safe for your home or rent a safe deposit box with a local bank where you can still easily access your documents but keep them secure off-site.


Wednesday, February 19, 2014

What to Do after a Loved One Passes Away

What to Do after a Loved One Passes Away

The loss of a loved one is a difficult time, often made more stressful when one has to handle the affairs of the deceased. This may be a great undertaking or rather minimal work, depending upon the level of estate planning done prior to death.

Tasks that have to be performed after the passing of a loved one will vary based on whether the departed individual had a will or not. In determining whether probate (a court-managed process where the assets of the deceased are managed and distributed) is needed, the assets owned by the individual, and whether these assets were titled, must be considered. It’s important to understand that assets titled jointly with another person are not probate assets and will normally pass to the surviving joint owner. Also, assets such as life insurance and retirement assets that name a beneficiary will pass to the named beneficiaries outside of the court probate process. If the deceased relative had formed a trust and during his life retitled his assets into that trust, those trust assets will also not pass through the probate process.

Each state’s rules may be slightly different so it is important to seek proper legal advice if you are charged with handling the affairs of a deceased family member or friend. Assuming probate is required, there will be a process that you must follow to either file the will and ask to be appointed as the executor (assuming you were named executor in the will) or file for probate of the estate without a will (this is referred to as dying "intestate" which simply means dying without a will). Also, there will be a process to publish notice to creditors and you may be required to send each creditor specific notice of the death. Those creditors will have a certain amount of time to file a claim against the estate assets. If a legitimate creditor files a claim, the claim can be paid out of the estate assets. Depending on your state's laws, there may also be state death taxes (sometimes referred to as "inheritance taxes") that have to be paid and, if the estate is large enough, a federal estate tax return may also have to be filed along with any taxes which may be due.

Only after the estate is fully administered, creditors paid, and tax returns filed and taxes paid, can the estate be fully distributed to the named beneficiaries or heirs. Given the many steps, and complexities of probate, you should seek legal counsel to help you through the process.


Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Don't Disinherit with a Dollar

There are a lot of myths and misconceptions surrounding estate planning. Many people think that a last will and testament is the only estate planning document you really need. This of course is false. Others assume that you only need to have an estate plan in place if you’re a millionaire. This too is false. Another popular myth in the world of estate planning is that the best way to disinherit a relative (particularly a child) is to leave him or her a single dollar in your will. You probably guessed it- this too is entirely false.

The truth of the matter is that you must be very careful with leaving someone you really want to disinherit a token gift of $1 or some other small amount. By doing so, you have now made that person a beneficiary of your estate. It is possible, if not likely, that state law will require your executor to provide all beneficiaries with copies of all pleadings, an accounting, and notice of various administration activities. This may make it easier for this "beneficiary" to now complain about things and may cause problems for your executor which could cost your estate money.

Instead of leaving a token amount, you might consider mentioning the person by name so it is clear that you have not simply overlooked them. Then, you would specifically state you are intentionally disinheriting them from your estate. Also, consider if you wish to disinherit that person's children or more remote descendants and if so specifically state that as well in your will. You should consult with an estate planning lawyer to assist you in the proper wording as you will want to make sure there is as little likelihood of a will contest as possible.


Saturday, September 7, 2013

Overview of LIfe Estates

Overview of Life Estates

Establishing a Life Estate is a relatively simple process in which you transfer your property to your children, while retaining your right to use and live in the property. Life Estates are used to avoid probate, maximize tax benefits and protect the real property from potential long-term care expenses you may incur in your later years. Transferring property into a Life Estate avoids some of the disadvantages of making an outright gift of property to your heirs. However, it is not right for everyone and comes with its own set of advantages and disadvantages.

Life Estates establish two different categories of property owners: the Life Tenant Owner and the Remainder Owner. The Life Tenant Owner maintains the absolute and exclusive right to use the property during his or her lifetime. This can be a sole owner or joint Life Tenants. Life Tenant(s) maintain responsibility for property taxes, insurance and maintenance. Life Tenant(s) are also entitled to rent out the property and to receive all income generated by the property.

Remainder Owner(s) automatically take legal ownership of the property immediately upon the death of the last Life Tenant. Remainder Owners have no right to use the property or collect income generated by the property, and are not responsible for taxes, insurance or maintenance, as long as the Life Tenant is still alive.

Advantages

  • Life Estates are simple and inexpensive to establish; merely requiring that a new Deed be recorded.
  • Life Estates avoid probate; the property automatically transfers to your heirs upon the death of the last surviving Life Tenant.
  • Transferring title following your death is a simple, quick process.
  • Life Tenant’s right to use and occupy property is protected; a Remainder Owner’s problems (financial or otherwise) do not affect the Life Tenant’s absolute right to the property during your lifetime.
  • Favorable tax treatment upon the death of a Life Tenant; when property is titled this way, your heirs enjoy a stepped-up tax basis, as of the date of death, for capital gains purposes.
  • Property owned via a Life Estate is typically protected from Medicaid claims once 60 months have elapsed after the date of transfer into the Life Estate. After that five-year period, the property is protected against Medicaid liens to pay for end-of-life care.

Disadvantages

  • Medicaid; that 60-month waiting period referenced above also means that the Life Tenants are subject to a 60-month disqualification period for Medicaid purposes. This period begins on the date the property is transferred into the Life Estate.
  • Potential income tax consequences if the property is sold while the Life Tenant is still alive; Life Tenants do not receive the full income tax exemption normally available when a personal residence is sold. Remainder Owners receive no such exemption, so any capital gains tax would likely be due from the Remainder Owner’s proportionate share of proceeds from the sale.
  • In order to sell the property, all owners must agree and sign the Deed, including Life Tenants and Remainder Owners; Life Tenant’s lose the right of sole control over the property.
  • Transfer into a Life Estate is irrevocable; however if all Life Tenants and Remainder Owners agree, a change can be made but may be subject to negative tax or Medicaid consequences.

Friday, September 6, 2013

6 Events Which Can Trigger Will Revisions

6 Events Which May Require a Change in Your Estate Plan

Creating a Will is not a one-time event. You should review your will periodically, to ensure it is up to date, and make necessary changes if your personal situation, or that of your executor or beneficiaries, has changed. There are a number of life-changing events that require your Will to be revised, including:

Change in Marital Status: If you have gotten married or divorced, it is imperative that you review and modify your Will. With a new marriage, you must determine which assets you want to pass to your new spouse or step-children, and how that may relate to the beneficiary interest of your own children. Following a divorce it is a good practice to revise your Will, to formally remove the ex-spouse as a beneficiary. While you’re at it, you should also change your beneficiary on any life insurance policies, pensions, or retirement accounts. Estate planning is complicated when there are children from multiple marriages, and an attorney can help you ensure everyone is protected, which may include establishing a trust in addition to the revised Will.

Depending on jurisdiction, this may also apply to couples who have established or revoked a registered domestic partnership.

If one of your Will’s beneficiaries experiences a change in marital status, that may also trigger a need to revise your Will.

Births: Upon the birth of a new child, the parents should amend their Wills immediately, to include the names of the guardians who will care for the child if both parents die. Also, parents or grandparents may wish to modify the distribution of assets provided in their Wills, to include the new addition to the family.

Deaths or Incapacitation: If any of the named executors or beneficiaries of a Will, or the named guardians for your children, pass away or become incapacitated, your Will should be revised accordingly.

Change in Assets: Your Will may need to be changed if the value of your assets has significantly increased or decreased, or if you dispose of an asset. You may want to modify the distribution of other assets in your estate, to account for the changed value or disposition of the asset.

Change in Employment: A change in the amount and/or source of income means your Will should be examined to see if any changes must be made to that document. Retirement or changing jobs could entail moving to another state, thus subjecting your estate to the laws of that state when you die. If the change in income modifies your investing, saving or spending habits, it may be time to review your Will and make sure the distribution to your beneficiaries will be as you intended.

Changes in Probate or Tax Laws: Wills should be drafted to maximize tax benefits, and to ensure the decedent’s wishes are carried out. If the laws regarding taxation of the estate, distribution of assets, or provisions for minor children have changed, you should have your Will reviewed by an estate planning attorney to ensure your family is fully protected and your wishes will be fully carried out.


Thursday, September 5, 2013

Joint Bank Accounts and Medi-Cal Eligibility

Joint Bank Accounts and Medi-Cal Eligibility

Like most governmental benefit programs, there are many myths surrounding Medicaid (known as Medi-cal in California) and eligibility for benefits. One of the most common myths is the belief that only 50% of the funds in a jointly-owned bank account will be considered an asset for the purposes of calculating Medicaid eligibility.

Medicaid is a needs-based program that is administered by the state.  Therefore, many of its eligibility requirements and procedures vary across state lines.  Generally, when an applicant is an owner of a joint bank account the full amount in the account is presumed to belong to the applicant. Regardless of how many other names are listed on the account, 100% of the account balance is typically included when calculating the applicant’s eligibility for Medicaid benefits.    

Why would the state do this? Often, these jointly held bank accounts consist solely of funds contributed by the Medicaid applicant, with the second person added to the account for administrative or convenience purposes, such as writing checks or discussing matters with bank representatives. If a joint owner can document that both parties have contributed funds and the account is truly a “joint” account, the state may value the account differently. Absent clear and convincing evidence, however, the full balance of the joint bank account will be deemed to belong to the applicant.  


Sunday, August 18, 2013

Think Treasure Hunts are Fun and Games? Think Again

 

Think Treasure Hunts are Fun and Games? Think Again

You’ve had an attorney draft your estate planning documents, including your living trust and will. Probate avoidance and tax saving strategies have been implemented. Your documents are signed, notarized and witnessed in accordance with all applicable laws, and are stored in a location known to your chosen executor or estate administrator. Your work is done, right? Not exactly.

Although treasure hunts may be fun for youngsters, the fiduciaries of your estate will not find inventorying your assets to be nearly as exciting. When it comes time to settle your affairs, your estate representatives will be charged with the responsibility to gather and manage your assets, pay off debts and taxes, and distribute your assets to your named beneficiaries. This can be a tall order for an outsider who is likely unaware of the full scope of your assets.

If your fiduciaries cannot determine exactly what property you own, and its value and location, you are setting up your loved ones for a frustrating treasure hunt that can delay the settlement of your estate and rack up additional estate-related expenses. You may be remembered for the frustration of locating your assets, rather than the gifts made upon your death – not a legacy many wish to leave.

Instead, as you are establishing your estate plan take the extra time to record a comprehensive asset inventory and make sure those who will be responsible for settling your estate know where that inventory is stored. Do not presume that everything is handled once you meet with a lawyer and sign your documents. The legal instruments you have gone to the time, trouble and expense to prepare are practically worthless if your assets cannot be identified, located and transferred to your beneficiaries. However, creating a thoughtful asset inventory will aid your loved ones in closing your estate and honoring your memory.

Nobody knows better what assets you own than you. And who better than you to know an item’s value, age or location? Your fiduciaries may not have the benefit of tax or registration renewal notices for titled assets, and certainly won’t have copies of the titles or deeds – unless you provide them. It’s a good idea to include copies of the following items with your asset inventory:
 

 

  • Deeds to real property
  • Titles to personal property
  • Statements for bank, brokerage, credit card and retirement accounts
  • Stock certificates
  • Life insurance policy
  • Tax notices

For each of the above assets you should also list names and contact information for individuals who can assist with each the underlying assets, such as real estate attorneys, brokers, financial planners and accountants.

If your estate includes unique objects or valuable family heirlooms, a professional appraisal can help you plan your estate, and help your representatives settle your estate. If you have any property appraised, include a copy of the report with your asset inventory.

Care should be taken to continually update your asset inventory as things change. There will likely be many years between the time your estate plan is created and the day your fiduciaries must step in and settle your estate. Properties may be bought or sold, and these changes should be reflected in your asset inventory on an ongoing basis.
 


Saturday, August 17, 2013

Will or Won't? Things a Will Won't (or Can't) Do

 

Will or Won’t? Things a Will Won’t (or Can’t) Do

 

Wills offer many benefits and are an important part of any estate plan, regardless of how much property you have. Your will can ensure that after death your property will be given to the loved ones you designate. If you have children, a will is necessary to designate a guardian for them. Without a will, the courts and probate laws will decide who inherits your property and who cares for your children. But there are certain things a will cannot accomplish.

A will has no effect on the distribution of certain types of property after your death. For example, if you own property in joint tenancy with another co-owner, your share of that property will automatically belong to the surviving joint tenant. Any contrary will provision would only be effective if all joint tenants died at the same time.

If you have named a beneficiary on your life insurance policy, those proceeds will not be subject to the terms of a will and will pass directly to your named beneficiary. Similarly, if you have named a beneficiary on your retirement accounts, including pension plans, individual retirement accounts (IRAs), 401(k) or 403(b) retirement plans, the money will be distributed directly to that named beneficiary when you pass on, regardless of any will provisions.

Brokerage accounts, including stocks and bonds, in which you have named a transfer-on-death (TOD) beneficiary will be transferred directly to the named beneficiary. Vehicles may also be titled with a TOD beneficiary, and would therefore transfer to your beneficiary, regardless of any provisions contained in your will. Similar to TODs, bank accounts may have a pay-on-death beneficiary named.

The will’s shortcomings are not limited to matters of inheritance. Generally, wills are not as well suited as trusts for putting conditions on a gift such as requiring someone to get married or divorced, or obtain a certain education level, as a prerequisite to inheriting a portion of your estate. A simple will cannot reduce estate taxes the way some kinds of trust plans can.

A trust, not a will, is also necessary to arrange for care for a beneficiary who has special needs. A will cannot provide for long-term care arrangements for a loved one. However, a special needs trust can provide financial support for a disabled beneficiary, without risking government disability benefits.

If you want to leave your estate to Fido, you’re out of luck in many states. Without a special pet trust, your will may not be able to provide for pets to inherit your assets. You can use your will to leave your pet to someone, and then leave money to that person in trust to help take care of your pet.

A will cannot help you avoid probate. Assets left through a will generally must be transferred through a court-supervised probate proceeding, which can take months, or longer, at significant expense to your estate. If it’s probate you want to avoid, consider establishing a living trust to hold your significant assets.

 

 


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