What Is an Ethical Will?

Scenes like this have taken place across the country since March, and many patients and loved ones have had strained conversations over phone or video calls, struggling to find the right words and hoping that their words can be heard. However, it’s impossible to share all of the family’s thoughts during this most trying of times, says a recent article “The Importance of Writing an Ethical Will—for You and to Those You Love” from The Wall Street Journal.

The increasing interest in estate planning during the pandemic has seen many Americans waking up to the realization they must get their estate plans in order. They focus on preparing wills, health care proxies and powers of attorney, which are important. However, there is another document that needs to be completed. It’s called an “ethical will.”

The ethical will is a statement used to transmit an individual’s basic values, history and legacy they would like to leave behind. It’s usually directed to children and grandchildren, but it can have a larger audience as well, and be shared with the friends who have become like family over a lifetime, or to communities, like houses of worship or civic groups.

The act of writing an ethical will reveals things the writer may not have even been aware of or leads to connections being made that had never been imagined. It is a chance to preserve parts of the person’s history, as well as the history of their ancestors. It is a wonderful gift to share your deepest wishes with those who are so important to you. An ethical will can bond people and generations, whether the letter is shared while you are living or after you have passed and lead to a sense of belonging to something bigger than each individual.

One of the most famous ethical wills was written by Shalom Aleichem, the famous Yiddish writer, and was printed in The New York Times after his death in 1916. While prepared as a last will and testament, it was a wonderful story that shared his values. He suggested that family and friends meet every year on the anniversary of his death, select a joyous story from the many he had written and read it aloud and “let my name be mentioned by them with laughter rather than not be mentioned at all.”

Even those of us who are not skilled writers have thoughts and wishes and history to share with our loved ones. Here are some questions to consider, when preparing your ethical will:

  • Who is it directed to?
  • Were there specific people and events who influenced your life?
  • What family history or stories would you want to pass on to the next generation?
  • What ethical or religious values are important to you?

While you work on completing a new estate plan, or updating an existing plan, take a moment to consider your ethical will and what you would like to share with your loved ones. The time to complete your estate plan and your ethical will is now. My office is open to schedule meetings either in person with social distancing or virtually through Zoom.

Wishing you as good a happy holiday season as possible in light of this COVID crisis.

Reference: The Wall Street Journal (Nov. 17, 2020) “The Importance of Writing an Ethical Will—for You and to Those You Love”


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How Do I Plan for a Loved One with Special Needs?

Parents and grandparents do all they can to help their children and grandchildren lead their best lives, and that often extends to the child or grandchild’s adult lives. When estate plans are made, people who can afford to, leave money and property to continue to support loved ones. However, when there is a family member with special needs, planning is different, explains the article “Planning for loved ones with special needs” from The Sentinel. The child may have been born with a developmental disability or a motor disability or developed mental illness or an addiction.

A person who is not able to work or care for themselves often receives public benefits to pay for food, shelter and medical care. Those public benefits will be jeopardized, if parents or grandparents make the mistake of leaving a gift of money or a bequest. Special needs planning addresses this issue.

Public benefits for people with no assets or income include Supplemental Security Income (SSI) to pay for food and shelter, Medicaid for medical care and the SNAP program for food, among others. Before money is given to a disabled family member or left in an estate plan, a review of the public benefits that are in use or available needs to be done, so benefits are not disrupted.

One example is SSI, a federal program that supports disabled persons who cannot earn enough, which in 2020 means $1,260 or more in a month. A disabled person who earns less than that and owns less than $2,000 in assets can receive $783 monthly to pay for food and shelter. If the person owns the home they live in or owns one car, they may still be considered to have under $2,000 in assets. Clothing and personal belongings are also not counted against the $2,000 asset limit.

However, to continue receiving the full benefit amount, the person cannot receive money from family or friends, since that money could be used for food and shelter. This also applies to “in kind” gifts, such as making a mortgage payment or helping with utility bills. Any direct gift reduces the SSI benefit.

There are ways for parents and grandparents to help their loved one enjoy a better quality of life. However, gifts must be carefully planned and within the laws. For instance, a family member may purchase certain services for a disabled person that would not disrupt their benefits. A parent or grandparent could pay for auto repairs, cell phone and land line phone services, educational expenses, medical care and social services. One very important note: the payments must be made directly to the merchant or provider and not to the disabled person.

There are two primary tools used to consider, when helping a special needs or disabled person:

Special Needs Trust: The gift is placed in the control of a trustee who manages the money, invests it, makes the appropriate tax filing and makes the decision about when to distribute funds.

Most family members don’t understand the web of complex regulations that dictate how public benefits work. Properly created and managed by a responsible trustee, the Special Needs Trust avoids putting the burden of financial care on other family members and lets money be wisely distributed.

Money and property in a Special Needs Trust is not considered to be an asset of the individual, as it is owned by the trust. However, the same restrictions apply to making direct distributions from the trust to the individual beneficiary for food and shelter.

The other account is an ABLE account, created by the Achieving a Better Life Experience law. Anyone can contribute to it and money in the account is not considered income and not counted against the asset limitations. Contributions are currently capped at $15,000 per year, and the account cannot contain more than $100,000.

Distributions from the ABLE account can be used to pay for a wide array of expenses for a disabled person without impacting government benefits. That includes housing, transportation, assistive technology, health, education and other needs. Families need to be aware that the disabled individual owns the assets in the ABLE account. If they are unable to manage money or are susceptible to scams, the family will want to be cautious about putting funds into the account.

If you have this type of situation for a family member, I am available to discuss the options to consider. Please call to schedule a consultation, which can be done in person or through Zoom.

Reference: The Sentinel (Nov. 20, 2020) “Planning for loved ones with special needs”


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Is Transferring House to Children a Good Idea?

Transferring your house to your children while you’re alive may avoid probate. However, gifting a home also can mean a rather large and unnecessary tax bill. It also may place your house at risk, if your children get sued or file for bankruptcy.

You also could be making a mistake, if you hope it will help keep the house from being consumed by nursing home bills.

There are better ways to transfer a house to your children, as well as a little-known potential fix that may help even if the giver has since died, says Considerable’s recent article entitled “Should you transfer your house to your adult kids?”

If a parent signs a quitclaim to give her son the house and then dies, it can potentially mean a tax bill of thousands of dollars for the son.

Families who see this error in time can undo the damage, by gifting the house back to the parent.

People will also transfer a home to try to qualify for Medicaid, but any gifts or transfers made within five years of applying for Medicaid can result in a penalty period when seniors are disqualified from receiving benefits.

In addition, transferring your home to another person can expose you to their financial problems because their creditors could file liens on your home and, depending on state law, take some or most of its value. If the child divorces, the house could become an asset that must be divided as part of the marital estate.

Section 2036 of the Internal Revenue Code says that if the parent were to retain a “life interest” in the property, which includes the right to continue living there, the home would remain in her estate rather than be considered a completed gift. However, there are rules for what constitutes a life interest, including the power to determine what happens to the property and liability for its bills.

There are other ways to avoid probate. Many states and DC permit “transfer on death” deeds that let homeowners transfer their homes at death without probate.

Another option is a living trust, which can ensure that all assets avoid probate.

Many states also have simplified probate procedures for smaller estates.

Reference: Considerable (Sep. 18) “Should you transfer your house to your adult kids?”


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