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Elder Law is About Protecting Assets From Long-Term Care Costs

Can You Tackle Elder Law on Your Own?

What usually happens when people do their own estate planning or work on elder law issues, without a lawyer who has years of practice? They may not incur the costs on the front end, but the costs, in financial and emotional terms, often arrive just when the individual or their family is most vulnerable. That message comes through loud and clear in the article “Do-it-yourself elder law estate planning can be risky” from a recent article in the Times Herald-Record.

Let’s clarify the two different areas:

  • Estate planning is about leaving assets to heirs with a minimum of court costs, legal fees and avoiding will contests.
  • Elder law is concerned with protecting assets from the cost of long-term care and empowering people who will be able to make legal, financial and medical decisions on your behalf, if you become incapacitated.

Two of the most important documents in an elder law estate plan are the Powers of Attorney (POA) and health care proxies. If these forms are not prepared correctly, problems will ensue. In some states, like New York, the POA form is long and complicated. Banks and financial institutions will refuse to recognize the form, if they are not completed correctly.

A POA needs to include the “Statutory Gifts Rider,” which allows broad giving powers to the elder law attorney to save assets, even on the eve of the person being admitted to a nursing home. Someone who is not an elder law attorney is not likely to know what this is, or how to prepare it.

There will be similar issues to a do-it-yourself health care proxy. Here’s just one example of the many things that can go wrong: an agent may not make decisions about withholding certain extreme life support measures, even if they are in possession of a valid health care proxy. There needs to be a living will from the individual that explicitly states their wishes regarding withholding heroic means and/or artificial measures. Without the proper document, the person could remain on life support for months or years, even if this was not their wish.

A do-it-yourself approach leaves much to chance. As a result, the potential for problems is enormous. A far better solution that spares spouses and loved ones, is to work with an experienced estate planning lawyer. Can you put a price on peace of mind?

Learn how long-term care costs can affect your estate plan.

Reference: Times Herald-Record (Nov. 23, 2019) “Do-it-yourself elder law estate planning can be risky”

When Do I Need a Power of Attorney?

When do you need a power of attorney? Always. Without a good durable power of attorney, your loved ones will have to go to court if you become incapacitated.

A power of attorney is a legal document signed by the “Principal,” granting the authority to another individual to make decisions on the Principal’s behalf. This document is only in effect during the lifetime of the Principal.

nj.com’s recent article on this topic asks “Who can sign for an incapacitated person if there’s no power of attorney?” The article noted that to have the authority to conduct financial transactions concerning the assets solely owned by the incapacitated person who failed to execute a power of attorney, a guardian will have to be appointed by the court.

A guardianship is a legal relationship established by the court, in which an individual is given legal authority over another when that person is unable to make safe and sound decisions regarding his or her person, or property.

For example, in New Jersey, an application will have to be filed in the probate part of the Superior Court, in the county where the incapacitated person resides.

If it’s not an emergency, a guardian also will need to be appointed to make medical decisions for an incapacitated person who hasn’t signed a health care proxy. This is a legal document that gives an agent the authority to make health care decisions for an incapacitated person. It will take effect, if the person is incapacitated or unable to communicate. The agent will make decisions that reflect the wishes of the incapacitated individual.

It’s typically not necessary to be appointed as an agent under a power of attorney or health care proxy or legal guardian for another person to sign an assisted living or nursing home admissions contract or a Medicaid application.

However, prior to signing another person’s admissions contract, read the fine print to be certain that you don’t become responsible for the bills!

Learn more about the importance of having a good durable power of attorney in place.

Reference: nj.com (July 22, 2019) “Who can sign for an incapacitated person if there’s no power of attorney?”

Plan for Your Incapacity

Do You Have Everything in Order if You Become Incapacitated?

That “something” that happens that no one wants to come out and say is that you are either incapacitated by a serious illness or injury or the ultimate ‘something,’ which is death. There are steps you can take that will help your family and loved ones if you become incapacitated, so they have the information they need and can help you, says Catching Health’s article “Getting your affairs in order.”

Start with the concept of incapacity, which is an important part of estate planning. Who would you want to speak on your behalf? Would that person be the same one you would want to make important financial decisions, pay bills and handle your personal affairs? Does your family know what your wishes are, or do you know what your parent’s wishes are?

Financial Power of Attorney. Someone needs to be able to pay your bills and handle financial matters. That person is named in a Financial Power of Attorney, and they become your agent. Without an agent, your family will have to go to court and get a conservatorship. This takes time and money. It also brings in court involvement into your life and adds another layer of stress and expense.

It’s important to name someone who you trust implicitly and whose financial savvy you trust. Talk with the person you have in mind first and make sure they are comfortable taking on this responsibility. There may be other family members who will not agree with your decisions, or your agent’s decisions. They’ll have to be able to stick to the course in the face of disagreements.

Medical Power of Attorney. The Medical Power of Attorney is used when end-of-life care decisions must be made. This is usually when someone is in a persistent vegetative state, has a terminal illness or is in an irreversible coma. Be cautious: sometimes people want to appoint all their children to make health care decisions. When there are disputes, the doctor ends up having to make the decision. The doctor does not want to be a mediator. One person needs to be the spokesperson for you.

Health Care Directive or Living Will. The name of these documents and what they serve to accomplish does vary from state to state, so speak with an estate planning attorney in your state to determine exactly what it is that you need.

Health Care Proxy. This is the health care agent who makes medical decisions on your behalf, when you can no longer do so. In Maine, that’s a health care advance directive. The document should be given to the named person for easy access. It should also be given to doctors and medical providers.

DNR, or Do Not Resuscitate Order. This is a document that says that if your heart has stopped working or if you stop breathing, not to bring you back to life. When an ambulance arrives and the EMT asked for this document, it’s because they need to know what your wishes are. Some folks put them on the fridge or in a folder where an aide or family member can find them easily. If you are in cardiac arrest and the DNR is with a family member who is driving from another state to get to you, the EMT is bound by law to revive you. You need to have that on hand, if that is your wish.

How Much Should You Tell Your Kids? While it’s really up to you as to how much you want to share with your kids, the more they know, the more they can help in an emergency. Some seniors bring their kids with them to the estate planning attorney’s office, but some prefer to keep everything under wraps. At the very least, the children need to know where the important documents are, and have contact information for the estate planning attorney, the accountant and the financial advisor. Many people create a binder with all of their important documents, so there are no delays caused in healthcare decisions.

Learn how important a power of attorney is.

Reference: Catching Health (May 28, 2019) “Getting your affairs in order.”

avoid critical estate planning mistakes

Common Estate Planning Mistakes to Avoid

Estate planning attorneys see them all the time: the mistakes that people make when they try to create an estate plan or a will by themselves. They learn about it, when families come to their offices trying to correct estate planning mistakes that could have been avoided just by seeking legal advice in the first place. That’s the message from the article “Five big estate planning ‘don’ts’” from Dedham Wicked Local.

Here are the five estate planning mistakes that you can easily avoid:

Naming minors as beneficiaries. Beneficiary designations are a simple way to avoid probate and be certain that an asset goes to your beneficiary at death. Most life insurance policies, retirement accounts, investment accounts and other financial accounts permit you to name a beneficiary. Many well-meaning parents (and grandparents) name a grandchild or a child as a beneficiary. However, a minor is not permitted to own an asset. Therefore, the financial institution will not name the minor child as the new owner. A conservator must be appointed by the court to receive the asset on behalf of the child and they must hold that asset for the minor’s benefit, until the minor becomes of legal age. The conservator must file annual accountings with the court reflecting activity in the account and report on how any funds were used for the minor’s benefit, until the minor becomes a legal adult. The time, effort, and expense of this are unnecessary. Handing a large amount of money to a child the moment they become of legal age is rarely a good idea. Leaving assets in trust for the benefit of a minor or young adult, without naming them directly as a beneficiary, is one solution.

Drafting a will without the help of an estate planning attorney. The will created at the kitchen table or from an online template is almost always a recipe for disaster. They don’t include administrative provisions required by the state’s laws, provisions are ambiguous or conflicting and the documents are often executed incorrectly, rendering them invalid. Whatever money or time the person thought they were saving is lost. There are court fees, penalties and other costs that add up fast to fix a DIY will.

Adding joint owners to bank accounts. It seems like a good idea. Adding an adult child to a bank account, allows the child to help the parent with paying bills, if hospitalized or lets them pay post-death bills. If the amount of money in the account is not large, that may work out okay. However, the child is considered an owner of any account they are added to. If the child is sued, gets divorced, files for bankruptcy or has trouble with creditors, that bank account is an asset that can be reached.

Joint ownership of accounts after death can be an issue, if your will does not clearly state what your intentions are for that account. Do those funds go to the child, or should they be distributed between heirs? If wishes are unclear, expect the disagreements and bad feelings to be directly proportionate to the size of the account. Thoughtful estate planning, that includes power of attorney and trust planning, will permit access to your assets when needed and division of assets after your death in a manner that is consistent with your intentions.

Failing to fund trusts. Funding a trust means changing the ownership of an asset, so the asset is owned by the trust or designating the trust as a beneficiary. When a trust is properly funded, assets funding the trust avoid probate at your death. If your trust includes estate tax planning provisions, the assets are sheltered from estate tax at death. You have to do this before you die. Once you’re gone, the benefits of funding the trust are gone. Work closely with your estate planning attorney to make sure that you follow the instructions to fund trusts.

Poor choices of co-fiduciaries. If your children have never gotten along, don’t expect that to change when you die. Recognize your children’s strengths and weaknesses and be realistic about their ability to work together, when deciding who will make financial decisions under a power of attorney, health care decisions under a health care proxy and who will best be able to settle your estate. If you choose two people who do not get along, or do not trust each other, it will take far longer and cost more to settle your estate. Don’t worry about birth order or egos.

The sixth biggest estate planning mistake people make, is failing to review their estate plan every few years. Estate laws change, tax laws change and lives change. If it’s been a while since your estate plan was reviewed, make an appointment to meet with your estate planning attorney for a review.

Learn about ways to avoid common estate planning mistakes.

Reference: Dedham Wicked Local (May 17, 2019) “Five big estate planning ‘don’ts’”

Documents

Get These Three Estate Planning Documents In 2019

These may not be the first things you are thinking about as we launch into a brand-new year, but the idea is not to wait until you’re not thinking clearly or when it’s too late and you don’t have what you need to protect yourself, your family and your property. The details, from the Fox Business news article, “3 financial documents everyone needs,” are straightforward. Put this on your to-do list today.

A Will. The essential function of a will is to ensure that your wishes are carried out, when you are no longer alive. It’s not just for rich people. Everyone should have a will. It can include everything from your financial assets to life insurance, family heirlooms, artwork and any real estate property.

A will can also be used to protect your business, provide for charities and ensure lifelong care for your pets.

If you have children, a will is especially important. Your will is used to name a guardian for your minor children. Otherwise, the state will decide who should rear your children.

Your will is also used to name your executor. That is the person who has the legal responsibility for making sure your financial obligations are honored. Without an executor, the state will appoint a person to handle those tasks.

An Advanced Medical Directive. What would happen if you became ill or injured and could not make medical decisions for yourself? An advanced medical directive and health care proxy are the documents you need to assign the people you want to make decisions on your behalf. The advanced medical directive, also called a living will, explains your wishes for care. The healthcare proxy appoints a person to make healthcare decisions for you. As long as you have legal capacity, these documents aren’t used, but once they are needed, you and your family will be glad they are in place.

A Durable Power of Attorney. This document is used to name someone who will make financial decisions, if you are not able to do so. Be careful to name a person you trust implicitly to make good decisions on your behalf. That may be a family member, an adult child or an attorney.

Once you’ve had these documents prepared as part of your estate plan, you’re not done. These documents need to be reviewed and updated every now and then. Life changes, laws change and what was a great tax strategy at one point may not be effective, if there’s a change to the law. Your estate planning attorney will help create and update your estate plan.

Reference: Fox Business (Dec. 19, 2018) “3 financial documents everyone needs”

Good Planning Avoids the Devastating Costs of Long-Term Care

If you don’t have a plan for long-term care, welcome to the club. However, you may not want to be a member of this club, if and when you need long-term care. A recent report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that people age 65 and older have a very good chance—70%—of needing long-term care. Despite this, most people are not putting plans in place, according to an article from Westfair Online titled Keybank poll reveals clients aren’t planning for long term care.”

This is true for people with assets exceeding $1 million and for people with more modest assets. In a study by Keybank, fewer than a quarter of high net-worth clients had plans in place for long-term care. This poses real financial risks, to the individuals and their families.

Consider the costs of long-term health care. One study from Genworth Financial reports that in 2017, the national median cost of a home health aide was roughly $49,000 a year, assisted living facilities could cost $45,000 (that’s not including medical services), and a private room in a nursing home came close to $100,000 annually. Costs vary by region, so if you live in an expensive area, those costs could easily go much higher.

Why don’t people plan ahead for long-term care? Perhaps they think they will never become ill, which is not the case. They may think their health insurance will cover all the cost, which is rarely the case.  They may believe that Medicare will cover everything, which is also not true.  We have seen cases come in the office where mom or dad didn’t plan and ended up spending all of their assets on long-term care.  No legacy was left to the kids.  Very sad.

Everyone’s hope is that they are able to be at home during a long illness, or during their last illness. However, that’s often not a choice we get. This is a topic that families should discuss well in advance of any illness. Talking with family about potential end-of-life care and decisions is important for setting expectations, delegating responsibilities and avoiding unpleasant surprises.

The other part of a long-term care discussion with family members needs to be about estate plans and decisions about the disposition of assets. Everyone should have a will, and all information including deeds, trusts, bank and investment accounts and digital assets should be discussed with the family. You’ll also need a power of attorney and health care proxy to carry out your wishes. An experienced estate planning attorney can help create an estate plan and facilitate discussions with family members.

Long-term planning is an on-going event. Life changes, and so should your long-term care plan, as well as your estate plan. You should also keep communications open with your family. They will appreciate your looking out for them before and after any illness.

Reference: Westfair Online (Sep. 7, 2018) Keybank poll reveals clients aren’t planning for long term care

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