Make Reviewing Your Estate Plan One of Your New Year’s Resolutions

The beginning of a new year is a good time to take a look at your estate plan to make sure it is up to date. Less than half of people actually have any estate planning documents in place and many of those people may have outdated documents. Documents that were created when your children were born may need updating 20, 30, or 40 years later, after your family and financial situation have changed entirely.

screen-shot-2017-01-12-at-3-47-19-pm

Estate planning is all about five essential documents. Here they are in order of importance:

1. The Durable Power of Attorney

The most important estate planning instrument for taking care of you and your family during life, as opposed to after death, is the durable power of attorney. This appoints one or more people you trust to step in and handle your finances and legal matters in the event of your incapacity, whether through illness, dementia, or an accident, and whether the incapacity is temporary or permanent. In the absence of a durable power of attorney, family members often must resort to going to court to be appointed conservator. This causes delay and expensive and unnecessary legal fees. It can also cause infighting by family members since you have not chosen who should step in.

While the concept of the durable power of attorney is simple – I appoint you as my agent for financial and legal matters in the event of incapacity – the devil, as always, is in the details. You have to make decisions about how many agents to appoint, whether to have alternates, whether to allow gifting, when the power of attorney should take effect, and whether to grant trust powers. I can help you with these details if you need me. More POA info on my website here.

2. Health Care Proxy

Like the durable power of attorney, a health care agent steps in for you to make health care decisions when and if you become incapacitated. Unlike a durable power of attorney, it only takes effect when a doctor determines that you are unable to make decisions yourself and you can only appoint one individual to serve at a time. This is so that there will be a single point-person in dealing with medical professionals and no possibility of disagreement or stalemate between co-health care agents. You can and should name one or more alternates to the principal agent.

The main problem with health care proxies is that agents often have no idea or only a vague idea of what decision the patient would make in a particular circumstance. This can be addressed in one or more of these ways: a medical directive, a conversation between the potential patient and the agent, and a number of available workbooks (see below).  A general medical directive can be included with the health care proxy that says either (1) pull the plug if I’m in a vegetative state or irreversible coma, (2) balance the potential benefit and discomfort of any proposed treatment, or (3) do whatever you can to keep me alive.

Part of the problem with giving guidance to one’s agent is that it’s hard to predict situations that may occur and treatments that may be available. A number of organizations have developed workbooks to provide more detailed guidance than simply “keep me alive at all costs” or “do nothing.” Check out: The Consumer’s Toolkit from the American Bar Association. Click here for a sample Health Care Proxy from my website.

3. HIPAA Release

In addition to a health care proxy, everyone needs a HIPAA release. The HIPAA law bars medical practitioners from releasing medical information to anyone, even to the spouse of a patient, without a release. You may well ask why a heath care proxy isn’t sufficient. There are a few answers: First, the health care proxy is “springing” in that it doesn’t get activated until or unless the patient is declared incapacitated. Second, while the health care proxy may only name one person at a time, you may well want a much broader group of people to communicate with medical providers. The agent may not always be available or may not be the first person on the scene.

All too often we have seen medical providers hide behind HIPAA to avoid having to deal with family members, sometimes to great harm to the patient. Especially in emergency situations, family members often have vital information about the patient, whether it’s the medications he is taking, allergies he may have, or his usual physical and mental health. HIPAA does not say that medical personnel cannot listen to this information, but it can be misconstrued in that fashion. It’s best to eliminate the whole issue by having a HIPAA release signed and available in case it’s ever needed.

4. Your Will

Your Will says who will get your stuff when you die and who will be in charge of paying your bills, filing your tax returns, gathering your stuff and distributing it according to your instructions.

But here’s the irony: although the will gets all the recognition and there’s a whole set of laws governing the so-called “probate” process, these days most assets pass outside of probate. What the will says does not apply in many situations, including: joint accounts that pass to the other joint owners, retirement plans and life insurance policies that go to designated beneficiaries, and property in trust that passes to the beneficiaries named in the trust document. Only what you own in your own name alone passes under the will. In addition, while the will requires a lot of formality – two witnesses and a notary all signing at the same time – these other forms of passing on property usually require only the signature of the owner, or sometimes simply filling out a form online.

That said, wills are important in terms of distributing your tangible personal property – stuff you can touch, such as furniture, jewelry, tools, clothing, boats, and cars. Your will appoints your executor or personal representative who is in charge of carrying out your wishes. This can be very important in avoiding squabbling among children. And your will can be used to appoint guardians for minor children. A will permits you to make charitable or other specific bequests. Finally your will can serve as a failsafe in case other means of passing on property fail.

5. Revocable Trust

The documents listed above may be enough, but you may also want a revocable trust, sometimes called a “living” trust. A trust is a construct under which one or more people, the trustees, manage property or investments for the benefit of one or more people, the beneficiaries. In a revocable trust, typically at the start the same person acts as the creator of the trust, the grantor or donor, as trustee and as beneficiary. Not much changes in their lives after they set up the trust. But it avoids probate by naming successor beneficiaries after the initial beneficiary passes away. While probate is not the worst thing that can happen to people, avoiding it can save heirs time and trouble.

But more importantly, a trust is a terrific tool for intervening in the event of incapacity. Financial institutions that are resistant to accepting durable powers of attorney appear to be more comfortable with trusts when a successor trustee is named. But it works even better when a parent names one or more adult children as co-trustees. The parent then does not give up any rights or autonomy, but permits the child to begin participating in financial management. Even if the child does nothing, he or she can view accounts and step in immediately if a problem arises. This can be especially important in the event of dementia or scams. Seniors are the primary victims of scams and having a trusted family member with access to accounts can help identify scams and permit intervention to limit their effect.

In addition to probate avoidance and incapacity protection, trusts are infinitely flexible in terms of how they are drafted. They can state any number of specifics on who receives property when, for instance, permitting its distribution over time to children and grandchildren. The options and opportunities for creativity are limitless

As you can see, most of these documents are about life not death. Of course, they’re still about planning for an unwanted event – incapacity of some sort. It’s like insurance to make sure that you and your family are taken care of if an unfortunate accident occurs.

Additional Estate Planning articles from my ElderLawNews blog>

Advertisements

Is It Better to Remarry in 2017 or Just Live Together?

Finding love later in life may be unexpected and exciting, but should it lead to marriage? The considerations are much different for an older couple with adult children and retirement plans than for a young couple just starting out. Before deciding whether to get married or just live together, you need to look at your estate plan, your Social Security benefits, and your potential long-term care needs, among other things. Whatever you decide to do, you may want to consult with your lawyer to make sure your wishes will be carried out.

Here are some things to think about: 

  • Estate Planning. Getting married can have a big effect on your estate plan. Even if you don’t include a new spouse in your will, in most states spouses are automatically entitled to a share of your estate (usually one-third to one-half). One way to prevent a spouse from taking his or her share is to enter into a prenuptial agreement in which both spouses agree not to take anything from the other’s estate. If you want to leave something to your spouse and ensure your heirs receive their inheritance, a trust may be the best option.
  • Long-Term Care. Trusts and prenuptial agreements, however, won’t necessarily keep a spouse from being responsible for your long-term care costs or vice versa. In addition, getting married can have an effect on your or your spouse’s Medicaid eligibility. If you can afford it, a long-term care insurance policy may be a good investment once you remarry.
  • The Family Home. Whether you are getting married or just living together, before combining households you will need to think about what will happen to the house once the owner of the house dies. If the owner wants to keep the house within his or her family, putting the house in both spouse’s names is not an option. On the other hand, the owner may also not want his or her heirs to evict the surviving spouse once the owner dies. One solution is for the owner of the house to give the surviving spouse a life estate. Once the surviving spouse dies, the house will pass to the original owner’s heirs.
  • Social Security. Many divorced or widowed seniors receive Social Security from their former spouses, and remarriage can affect benefits. If you are divorced after at least 10 years of marriage, you can collect retirement benefits on your former spouse’s Social Security record if you are at least age 62 and if your former spouse is entitled to or receiving benefits. If you remarry, you generally cannot collect benefits on your former spouse’s record unless your later marriage ends (whether by death, divorce, or annulment). However, if your are a widow, widower or surviving divorced spouse who remarries after age 60, you are entitled to benefits on your prior deceased spouse’s Social Security earnings record.
  • Alimony. If you are receiving alimony from a divorced spouse, it will likely end once you remarry. Depending on the laws in your state and your divorce settlement, alimony may end even if you simply live with someone else.
  • Survivor’s Annuities. Widows and widowers of public employees, such as police officers and firefighters, often receive survivor’s annuities. Many of these annuities end if the surviving spouse remarries. In addition widows and widowers of military personnel may lose their annuities if they remarry before age 57. Before getting married, check your annuity policy to see what the affect will be.
  • College Financial Aid. Single parents with children in college may want to reconsider before getting married. A new spouse’s income could affect the amount of financial aid the college student receives. Some private colleges may even count the combined income of a couple that lives together if they commingle their expenses.

What effects will repealing Obamacare have on Medicare?

What effects can repealing the Affordable Care Act (ACA), aka Obamacare, have? While repealing Obamacare will have implications for millions of younger people covered by the insurance, it will also affect Medicare beneficiaries.

To begin with, the ACA requires insurers to provide free preventative care coverage to Medicare beneficiaries. Without that requirement, seniors may end up having to pay for many preventative care services.

In addition, the ACA reduced prescription drug costs under Medicare Part D and phased in an elimination of the infamous “doughnut hole.” The doughnut hole is the period of time in which seniors are responsible for 100 percent of the cost of prescription drugs. Under the ACA, the percentage seniors pay for drugs while in this coverage gap was capped at 50 percent starting in 2011 and is supposed to continue dropping until the doughnut hole is eliminated completely in 2020.  (For more on how the ACA addresses the doughnut hole, click here.)

A little–known fact about the ACA is that it contains provisions designed to strengthen Medicare. Repealing the ACA may eliminate those provisions, potentially destabilizing Medicare.  The ACA also established programs to reduce Medicare waste, fraud, and abuse. Thanks to these measures, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Medicare hospital insurance fund is projected to remain solvent eleven years longer than before the ACA was enacted.

These factors combined with the fact that millions of near-seniors aged 50-64 could lose coverage, leaving them in poorer health when they become eligible for Medicare, could raise future Medicare costs for existing beneficiaries.

Hopefully the best parts will be kept in place if a new plan is enacted.

Will Gifting a Car Cause a Medicaid Penalty Period?

The answer is probably “yes,” but it depends on the circumstances. Are we talking about a 10-year-old Toyota Corolla or a brand new Mercedes?

There will be more scrutiny for the latter. Is your mother buying a new car, or stopping driving altogether? If she’s still healthy and alert enough to drive, you have a good argument that the gift has nothing to do with Medicaid planning. Does your mother have substantial assets other than the car, or is that her major asset? If the transfer doesn’t affect her eligibility because she still has a lot more to spend down, it’s less likely to be a problem. Unfortunately, this is one of those gray areas where the answer depends on whether you can convince the Medicaid intake worker that the gift to your daughter was not for Medicaid planning purposes. It will depend on the circumstances, on how such a transaction is treated in your state, and perhaps on the particular intake worker.

READ THE TOP 8 MEDICAID PLANNING MISTAKES: click here: