Estate planning guide: when, how and why to update your existing plan

One of the most common estate planning questions I get is when and why you would need to update your estate plan. Here are your guidelines:

  1. Has the value of your estate increased substantially since your last update?  Do you have more than $5 million if you’re single, or $10 million if you’re married?  Is this a change from before?  If so, then you may want to consider a review of your estate plan.
  2. Did you complete your powers of attorney before 2003?  In California the forms changed at that time, so now would be a good time to take another look.
  3. Are your beneficiaries on your retirement and life insurance accounts updated?
  4. Does your estate plan reflect your current family and desires for distribution to them?  Or has there been a birth, death, marriage or divorce since your last estate check up?  If so, you may need a review.
  5. Are you protected for a time (the time) when you are unable to think or care for yourself? Do you have your powers of attorney? Long-term care?  Advances in medical care mean we will live longer, but at the same time we will more likely experience a diminishing of capacity before we pass on.  Without these basic planning tools, we leave our family with these burdens.  Are you approaching 50?  If you don’t have long-term care yet, now is the time to get it.  You can’t wait until you need it or you won’t qualify.
  6. Have you chosen a guardian for your minor children?  If you don’t, then your children could become the subject of a custody battle if something happens to you, or they could be place in foster care while the decision is being made.  Don’t take this risk!

If it has been a while since you created your estate plan, or you don’t have one at all, now is the time to put the tools in place to protect your family and your assets.  Schedule a FREE appointment online, or call us at 925.307.6543.

Why and when you need an estate planning/elder law attorney

Top reasons why you may need an estate planning or elder law attorney:

  1. To keep more of your assets and money for your family than for the government/attorneys
  2. To have peace of mind that your family and all you have worked for is protected
  3. To avoid the state’s plan for the passing of your estate (probate) because it is complex, difficult, expensive, and time-consuming, and you want to make sure you don’t put your family through it
  4. To acknowledge that your needs will change as you age, and it takes critical planning to ensure that you and your family are cared for as you grow older
  5. Because the government (through Medicare/Medical/Medicaid) will not be sufficient for your long-term care, and you know that an attorney can help you to evaluate your options to make sure you are protected

Top reasons when you may need an estate planning or elder law attorney:

  1. Your estate becomes worth $150,000 or more (not including debt)
  2. Your loved one has been diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s, or is becoming unable to manage their affairs
  3. You are worried that you do not have a plan in place for your estate and family after you’re gone – everyone needs a plan, regardless of age, estate size, or family composition
  4. You are concerned about your or your loved one’s ability to cope with rising costs, continue to pay bills, or provide for ongoing medical care

Do you have any of these concerns?

What is a Power of Attorney? Why is it critical that you have and up-to-date one at all times, once you turn 18?

In California, there are two kinds of powers of attorney: one for finances and one for medical decisions, also called an advance directive or living will.  A power of attorney for finances gives another individual the power to handle your financial affairs if you become incapacitated and cannot manage them on your own, like when you are hospitalized.  While you are unable to manage your own affairs, someone else can ensure that your bills are paid and utilities stay on for when you return.  The power of attorney is necessary because banks generally will not allow access to your accounts without a formal document giving specific permission to someone else, even if you are the spouse, parent, or sibling of the person who is incapacitated.

Similarly, a power of attorney for medical decisions gives the power to another person to make medical decisions on your behalf if you are incapable of doing so due to illness, accident, or other problem.  It specifies what kind of medical treatment you do or do not want, and in the absence of one, the doctors will do all that they can to keep you alive as long as they can, even if you are in a persistent vegetative state.  In addition, in California there is the HIPAA authorization for medical records so that the person who is making your medical decisions can also look at your medical records.

Every individual 18 or over needs to have these three documents.  Sometimes, parents assume that their college-age children do not need these documents because they will be listened to as parents.  This is not always the case, so any child going off to college, or just turning 18 needs to have these documents.  Similarly, aging parents need to have one as well to avoid the difficult conservator process if they become incapacitated without proper powers of attorney.

Don’t overlook these important estate planning concerns in divorce

When you get a divorce in California (and everywhere else!), there are important estate planning considerations to take into account.  In fact, these are so critical that you could end up leaving your estate to your ex spouse (ouch!), having your ex make important medical decisions for you, or – if you act hastily and without the proper information – you could get into trouble with the court system.

During Divorce:  First, when you file for divorce in California, regardless of whether it’s Alameda County, Contra Costa County, or any other county, once the other party is served, both of you become restrained from doing certain things.  One of these restraining order involves your will or trust, and prohibits you from making any changes to your will or trust once you’ve filed for divorce and served the other party.  One of the others prohibits either of you from changing or cancelling any insurance, such as life, health, auto/property, etc., or changing the beneficiaries on any insurance or other account where a beneficiary is named.  Do not make the mistake of cancelling your ex’s health insurance or changing your will after you have filed for divorce!

You may make these changes with permission from the other party or with a court order, and you may want to seek this.  Particularly if you have separate property, the last thing you want is for your ex to get it all if something happens to you. You may also want to get permission to change the beneficiary of your life insurance into a trust for your children, but you need permission for both of these actions.

One of the changes that you should make as soon as you can, and there is no court prohibition on this, is your powers of attorney.  For both health and finances, you want to make sure you designate someone other than your ex who will make decisions for you and manage your affairs should you become incapacitated.  If you’re lying in a hospital bed unconscious, do you really want your ex deciding whether to get surgery or wait to see if the medication improves your condition?

After Divorce:  Once your divorce is final, you want to make sure you change your will or trust, your powers of attorney (if you’ve not done so already), the beneficiaries on your life insurance, retirement and other accounts, and make sure you have enough life insurance for your children and long-term care insurance to care for yourself as you get older.

Need more help?  Click here for our FREE Divorce e-Course.

Part two: So, imagine you’re going to die tonight. What would happen?

Here is part two of the depressing series about what happens when you die.  I read this fantastic article, What Would Happen if you Died Tonight, and thought I would put my own spin on it, though it does a great job of laying out the issues.

We all know that we need to do some kind of estate planning, but many of us don’t know what, or how, or even how to find help.  We also know that we don’t really want to think about it, so all of these obstacles can add up to just not doing anything.  Are you one of those who has no plan in place?  Well, then this is the article for you.

What would happen if you died tonight?  What would happen to your children?  Who would care for them?  Would you have several family members fighting for that right and responsibility?  Does your estate have enough money in it to care for your children’s financial upbringing, or will your children be a financial burden on their new caregivers, too?

How about your assets?  Would they be tied up in probate for years because you did not create an estate plan?  Would you put your loved ones through that time, money, hassle and stress because you couldn’t find time to put a trust into place?  Who would get your stuff?  Is there an heirloom ring that your children will fight over because they don’t know who should have it?  Will your family be torn apart by the stress and grief of your passing, and all of the responsibilities and burdens you left for them?

These may seem like drastic and overly-dramatic questions, but if you have ever experienced the death of a loved one, or known someone who has, you know that these are very real considerations.  What would it really be like if you died tonight?  Would you have put your affairs in order to protect your loved ones?  Or will you make them figure it out on their own?

The first in a two-parter: What you need to know but wish you didn’t

I recently read an article entitled, How Doctors Die, and was struck by its simplicity and elegance.  Also, I was struck by how doctors know what they want and don’t want, clearly, because they aren’t afraid to face death, the inevitability of it, and the need for anticipation and planning.  Tomorrow, we’ll talk about another article I read recently, What Would Happen if you Died Tonight, and how we can better plan for our own inevitable demise.  But today, let’s start with the cheery subject of the end of life decisions doctors make, and how we (unfortunately) differ.

First, they plan.  Necessarily, as a doctor, they see and comprehend in a way us regular folk cannot (except perhaps funeral directors) that death is inevitable. Not only that, and perhaps more importantly, they understand that not planning very likely means that things will happen to you and around you that you do not ever want to happen.  Procedures will be done to you that you would have refused if you could have, your family will suffer more than they should, you will suffer in pain and illness more than  you would choose to, and your estate (your money, your assets) will be in a tangled mess, causing more hardship on your family than you would ever have wanted.

We don’t want to think about death – no one does – but the reality is inevitable.  We don’t have a choice about that.  What we DO have a choice about is how we handle it, the dignity we grant ourselves, the burdens and responsibilities (or lack thereof) we leave to our loved ones, and the mess (or lack thereof) we leave to our loved ones.  If we have these choices, and it’s really the only choices we have in our anticipation of death, then why don’t we take advantage of them?

Second, doctors know of and learn from our mistakes.  It can be hard to acknowledge our own mortality unless and until we either experience serious illness or we see it in one of our loved ones.  But we can learn from their wisdom, and we don’t have to necessarily experience it to benefit from what they see.  Illness, accidents, & terrible diagnoses don’t generally come with advance warning and the ability to prepare.  They come on suddenly, shockingly, and require grave decisions to be made, sometimes quite quickly.  But the best time to make a decision is when you are calm and able to think all of the issued out.  The worst time?  When you’re facing a life or death situation.

The bottom line is that planning is essential to ensure that you are cared for in the way you want to be, and that you do not put unnecessary burden on your loved ones.  If you knew what the burden would be when it came time, you would definitely choose to plan ahead.  Why wait until it’s too late?

Make sure your California divorce attorney knows estate planning. And your California estate planning attorney? Make sure they know family law, too.

There is a great deal of overlap between estate planning and family law.  So much so that, if you’re seeking a lawyer in either area, you should make sure you have one with experience in the other area of law.

Take your divorce lawyer.  Why would knowledge of estate planning be important?  Well, for starters, your divorce is going to end at some point.  And because divorces often take much longer than we’d like, we are often exhausted after they’re done, and have no desire to do any other kind of planning or work on the whole divorce issue.  But once the divorce is done, this is when the really critical aspects of your financial life and future come into play.  You need to change your beneficiaries on your retirements and life insurance.  You need to change and update your will and estate plan, your powers of attorney, and the guardians for your children.  A divorce lawyer without estate planning experience is not necessarily going to make sure you’re properly advised on these issues.

Conversely, let’s look at your estate planning attorney.  First, in blended families (where one or both spouses have children from a prior relationship), there are specific estate planning issues that overlap with family law.  In addition, it’s important to know whether either of the spouses has separate property.  Separate property is property that either spouse owned prior to the marriage.  If either has separate property, then putting the property into the trust without a separate property agreement transforms the property into community property….and this could make the owner spouse quite upset should the couple eventually decide to divorce.

These are just a few of the small issues that overlap, and there are many more.  So many that it would be detrimental to you and your family – not to mention your financial future – to consult with an attorney who lacks knowledge and experience in one of these areas.

Need more information?  Getting a divorce and overwhelmed with all the information you need to know?  Click here for my FREE “Divorce 101” 7-Day e-Course plus FREE 7-page Report, “Things they don’t tell you about divorce in California (and everywhere else!)”

Need even more help? Schedule an online appointment here or click here for California Divorce Made Easy!

Who needs an estate plan? Top 7 reasons why you need one even if you think you don’t. Part II:

Last time, we talked a little bit about the top reasons why you may need an estate plan, even if you think you don’t.  Here are the last three reasons.

  1. Your children’s guardian.  Have children?  Have you named their guardian?  Is this document posted prominently in your house in case it’s needed?  If you don’t decide on your guardian, the court will.  The court doesn’t know you, your children, your family, or who you think would be most appropriate (or, conversely, who would NOT be appropriate).  You may not have decided on someone, but you’ve probably eliminated some candidates.  When you name no one, no one knows who you have eliminated, as the job is up for grabs to anyone.  Name your preferences or your very last choice could very well raise your children.
  2. Your child’s guardian, part two.  What happens if you’re in an accident and you and your spouse go to the hospital?  Will the police leave your children with the underage babysitter?  No, of course not. If you have not chosen a guardian, and posted that prominently (and told the babysitter), then the police are going to take your children to the police station.  They may very well put your children into foster care while you recover.  While the chance this would happen may be slim, why take the chance?
  3. Other documents necessary.  If you don’t have an estate plan, you’re less likely to have powers of attorney, a living will/advance directive, and other necessary estate planning documents.  These documents generally help you when you become incapacitated and cannot make decisions on your own behalf.  Often a spouse is your first choice, but what happens if your spouse is also incapacitated?  You need to prepare these documents to protect yourself and your wishes from being honored if you can’t speak for yourself.
Convinced?

Who needs an estate plan? Top seven reasons why you need one even if you think you don’t. Part I:

When I am talking to friends, colleagues and potential clients, they often tell me that they don’t need an estate plan because they don’t have enough money to reach the estate tax exemption ($5.25 million).  What is distressing to me is that individuals with estates worth one million dollars or less (this is the gross estate not taking into account any debt) have so much more to lose when they don’t have an estate plan in place.  Here are some reasons why:

  1. Probate fees.  If you have $150,000 in property in California – so anyone from Oakland to Livermore to San Jose to Walnut Creek with a house meets this requirement – will be headed to probate.  Probate fees cost 8-10% of your gross estate.  So if your total estate, not considering debt, comes to about $800,000, your estate could be paying up to $80,000 in probate fees.  Wouldn’t you rather that money go to your family?
  2. Probate time.  The probate process in California can take 6 years or more to complete.  During this time, your family has to deal with lawyers, court, judges, appraisers, and other strangers in their lives.  Plus, the property cannot be transferred during this time, so your family waits all these years to get access to the estate you left them.  With an estate plan, there is no delay at all.
  3. Ease of transfer.  The probate process is difficult, frustrating, time-consuming and very expensive.  Without an estate plan, you force your family to go through it at a time when they should be taking care of themselves and each other in the wake of the tremendous loss.  Generally we pick our closest family member to administer our estate.  Why wouldn’t we make that administration as easy as possible for them?
  4. Emotional difficulty of probate.  In addition to the fees, the time and the difficulty, the length of probate doesn’t allow our family members to move on after a death.  We all have our own processes for dealing with grief and death, and some take longer than others.  But the seemingly-endless probate process means that your family can’t get past the loss until the court says they can.  This allows for more time to get angry, to fight with other family members, and be held back in their own personal growth.  In life we support the growth of our families; why would we want to hold them back in death?
Come back tomorrow for the final three critical reasons you need an estate plan, even if you think you don’t!

Talking to your parents about estate planning: how to do it and when to do it

Many of my clients ask me how they can talk to their parents about estate planning. Either they are doing their estate plan and want to make sure their parents are properly protected, or they are learning about the importance of estate planning, and just want to make sure their parents know what they need to do. I’ve talked about this before in a similar article, but I wanted to provide a new perspective to go along with the older article.

First, you are coming from a place of concern rather than a place of greed (“Hey Mom, what am I going to get?!”). You know that they don’t want to put themselves into a situation where they are not taken care of in the way that they want to (for example, if they don’t have proper powers of attorney in place). You know that they want to do all they can to help you and your siblings and/or their grandchildren. You know that they are probably concerned about leaving a legacy to their family and to the world. While we don’t think about this much when we are younger, nearly all older adults worry about leaving a legacy. Part of my estate plans with all of my clients, from San Jose to Novato, includes a place to record not just where the finances go, but how the important personal items are distributed, passing down important genealogical, medical, military and personal histories. You know your parents want to do this, so you want to make sure they know how.

Second, parents will always be parents to their children, so you can bet that they want to continue to take care of you as much as possible, even after they are gone. The probate process, which is what will happen if an estate (in California is worth $100,000 – not taking debt into account) passes without a living trust, is a burden on you and your siblings. It’s time-consuming, expensive, and adds an incredible additional burden to you at their death, which will be hard enough as it is. By encouraging your parents to create an estate plan, you are helping them to continue to take care of you after they are gone, which is what all parents want.

A great time to discuss estate planning is (1) now, since you’ve read this article (send them the link! Isn’t your mom always sending you newspaper clippings? I know mine is…), or (2) when you do your own estate plan. Talking about your experience can be a great conversation starter.

It doesn’t have to be a tough conversation, but it is a necessary one.