What Kind of Estate Planning Mistakes Do People Make?

Estate planning for any sized estate is an important responsibility to loved ones. Done correctly, it can help families flourish over generations, control how legacies are distributed and convey values from parents to children to grandchildren. However, a failed estate plan, says a recent article from Suffolk News-Herald titled “Estate planning mistakes to avoid,” can create bitter divisions between family members, become an expensive burden and even add unnecessary stress to a time of intense grief.

Here are some errors to avoid:

This is not the time for do-it-yourself estate planning.

An unexpected example comes from the late Chief Justice Warren Burger. Yes, even justices make mistakes with estate planning! He wrote a 176 word will, which cost his heirs more than $450,000 in estate taxes and fees. A properly prepared will could have saved the family a huge amount of money, time and anxiety.

Don’t neglect to update your will or trust.

Life happens and relationships change. When a new person enters your life, whether by birth, adoption, marriage or other event, your estate planning wishes may change. The same goes for people departing your life. Death and divorce should always trigger an estate plan review.

Don’t be coy with heirs about your estate plan.

Heirs don’t need to know down to the penny what you intend to leave them but be wise enough to convey your purpose and intentions. If you are leaving more money to one child than to another, it would be a great kindness to the children’s relationship, if you explained why you are doing so. If you want your family to remain a family, share your thinking and your goals.

If there are certain possessions you know your family members value, making a list those items and who should get what. This will avoid family squabbles during a difficult time. Often it is not the money, but the sentimental items that cause family fights after a parent dies.

Understand what happens if you are not married to your partner.

Unmarried partners do not receive many of the estate tax breaks or other benefits of the law enjoyed by married couples. Unless you have an estate plan and a valid will in place, your partner will not be protected. Owning property jointly is just one part of an estate plan. Sit down with an experienced estate planning attorney to protect each other. The same applies to planning for incapacity. You will want to have a HIPAA release form and Power of Attorney for Health Care, so you are able to speak with each other’s medical providers.

Don’t neglect to fund a trust once it is created.

It’s easy to create a trust and it’s equally easy to forget to fund the trust. That means retitling assets that have been placed in the trust or adding enough assets to a trust, so it may function as designed. Failing to retitle assets has left many people with estate plans that did not work.

Please don’t be naive about caregivers with designs on your assets or relatives, who appear after long periods of estrangement.

It is not pleasant to consider that people in your life may not be interested in your well-being, but in your finances. However, this must remain front and center during the estate planning process. Elder financial abuse and scams are extremely common. Family members and seemingly devoted caregivers have often been found to have ulterior motives. Be smart enough to recognize when this occurs in your life.

My office is open to help you cover these issues. We are able to hold in person consultations with social distancing or virtually through Zoom.

Reference: Suffolk News-Herald (Dec. 15, 2020) “Estate planning mistakes to avoid”

 

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What Steps to Take when Dementia Begins

Covid-19 has made travelling more difficult, so holiday visits this year may not be the same triggering event they were in the past. However, even an online holiday visit can reveal a great deal of change, reports a recent article “Elder Care: When the children don’t notice” from The Sentinel.

An elderly spouse caring for another elderly spouse may not notice that their loved one’s needs have increased. Caregiving may have started as the spouse needing a reminder to take a shower on a regular basis. As dementia progresses, the spouse may not be able to shower by themselves.

This quickly becomes exhausting and unsafe. If one spouse suddenly does not recognize the other and perceives their spouse as an intruder, a dangerous situation may occur, repeatedly. It’s time to discuss this with the children, if they are not available to notice this decline in person.

People are often reluctant to tell out-of-town children about this problem because they don’t want the added stress of having the children come to the rescue and making decisions that may be overwhelming. The children may also think they can come out for a visit and fix everything in the space of a few days. It’s not an easy situation for anyone.

A starting point, especially when early-stage dementia has been diagnosed, is to get an estate plan in place immediately, while the person still has the capacity to sign legal documents. Anyone who is old enough for Medicare (and anyone else, for that matter) needs to have at the least, an updated living trust, last will and testament, durable financial power of attorney for financial matters and a health care power of attorney, including a living will.

The financial power of attorney document will be the most practical because the family will be able to access financial accounts and make decisions without having to petition the court to appoint a guardian. A professional guardian might be appointed, which is extremely expensive and there have been situations where the professional guardian makes decisions the family does not want. A family member who can act under the power of attorney may be a much better solution for all concerned.

Speak with your estate planning attorney to be sure the POA permits wealth preservation. If it contains the phrase “limited gifting,” you want to discuss this and likely change it. You should also be sure that there is a secondary and even a third backup agent, in case there are any issues with the people named as POA.

Spouses typically have wills that leave everything to their spouse, and then equally among their children, if the spouse dies first. However, what if your spouse is in a nursing home when you die? The cost of nursing home care can quickly exhaust all funds. If any family member is receiving government benefits and then inherits directly, they could lose important government benefits. These are all matters to discuss with your estate planning attorney.

Have a conversation with your children about your healthcare advance directive. It’s not an easy conversation, but when the children know what their parents want concerning end-of-life care decisions, it relieves an enormous burden for all. Get specific—do you want a feeding tube to keep you alive? What about if the only thing keeping them alive is a heart-lung machine? Better to have these conversations now, than in the hospital when emotions are running high.

Another important document today is the HIPAA release. This permits healthcare providers to discuss and share information about your loved one’s medical care. Without it, even close family members are not legally permitted to be part of the conversation about health care, lab test results, etc.

Reference: The Sentinel (Dec. 11, 2020) “Elder Care: When the children don’t notice”

Suggested Key Terms: Power of Attorney, Healthcare Advance Directive, Last Will and Testament, Estate Planning Attorney, Dementia, Guardian, HIPAA, Elderly Spouse, Nursing Home

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How to Organize Digital Assets

Did you ever wonder what happens to old emails, videos, or photos when people die? Some family stories become headlines, when families battle with big tech firms to get their loved one’s photos or business records. Today, you need to plan for “digital assets,” as explained in a recent article “Don’t leave grieving relatives searching for your passwords: Here’s how to organize your digital life before you die” from USA Today.

Your digital life includes far more than your photos or business records. It includes financial accounts, like PayPal or Venmo, websites, videogames, online investment portfolios, social media, online video games and anything for which you need a password.

Social media accounts that are not closed down or deleted when someone dies, are at risk of being taken over by cybercriminals, who use the accounts to get access to financial accounts and use the decedent’s identity to commit crimes across the internet.

Start by making a list of all of your accounts, including account numbers, usernames and passwords. If the account has two-factor authentication, you’ll need to include that information as well. If the account uses biometrics, like a facial scan, you’ll need to find out from the platform itself how you can create a directive to allow another person to gain access to the account.

Your trust or will needs to reflect the existence of digital assets and name a person who will be your digital executor. Many states have passed legislation concerning how digital assets are treated in estate planning, so check with your estate planning attorney to learn what your state’s requirements are.

In many cases, the best option is to use the platform’s own account tools for digital assets. Google, Facebook, PayPal, and a number of other sites offer the ability to name a legacy contact who will be able to gain some access to an account, to access the information and to delete the account in the event of your death.

One big issue in digital estate planning is that some platforms automatically delete accounts and their contents, if the account is inactive for a certain amount of time. Content may be lost forever, if the proper steps are not taken.

Some financial advisors maintain online portals, where their clients may store important documents that can be accessed from anywhere in the world. This may be an option, in addition to keeping a list of digital assets in the same location where you keep your estate planning documents.

We all live in a digital world now, and when a person dies, it’s challenging to locate all of their accounts and gain access to their contents. Your grandchildren may be able to figure out some workarounds, but it would be much easier if digital assets were part of the conversation you had with your children when discussing your estate plan.

Reference: USA Today (Nov. 25, 2020) “Don’t leave grieving relatives searching for your passwords: Here’s how to organize your digital life before you die”

 

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