Avoid these shortcuts in estate planning and save your assets, protect your family, and leave a legacy

We’re all looking to save money and get our to do list done as quickly and easily as possible.  But when it comes to estate planning, quick and cheap shortcuts can end up not only costing you in the long run, but can hurt both your family and your legacy.

For example, if you decide to forego an estate plan for your real property, and instead opt for joint tenancy, then you are at best just delaying the probate process, and at worst exposing your home to complete loss in your lifetime. With joint tenancy, there may not be any need for probate or transfer proceedings at the death of the first spouse (just some simple) paperwork, at the death of the survivor, the property goes into probate, which can take years and cost up to 10% of the gross estate value, which can be in the tens of thousands of dollars even for estates with just a house – even one with substantial debt.  Putting a child on title to the property does not solve this problem, and can lead to your child’s creditors seizing the house, the inability to undo the transfer at a later date when needed, a loss of control over the disposition of the house, more complications in transfer at the survivor’s death, and more.

Another shortcut is either being incomplete or too vague in your estate plan documentation.  If you have a living trust, it must be funded completely.  It does not serve you or anyone else to leave “just that one account” outside the trust since it ‘has so little in it.’  Why leave a small account – or a large one – outside the trust and make it more difficult for your family to transfer it? It’s possible then that the bank will just get your money since it will be too much trouble to transfer the account outside the trust.  In addition, if you have provisions for the distribution of your estate, make sure you have alternate provisions in case your beneficiaries do not outlive you.  For example, if you are leaving everything to your children, make sure you have a provision for who gets your estate if the airplane goes down and you all pass at the same time.

There are a lot of aspects of estate planning that can easily be completed improperly, costing you, your family, and the estate you worked your life to build. Estate planning is not the place to look for a quick or cheap solution, but rather to take the time to ensure that all you’ve worked for is left just the way you want it.

Powers of Attorney: Why do you need them, particularly in a California divorce case?

There are two kinds of powers of attorney: one for health care, and one for assets. They both allow you to choose the person who will make decisions for you in the event you cannot, either due to mental or physical incapacitation. If you are in a car accident and unconscious for several days or weeks, someone will have to make decisions for you regarding your care and treatment (this hospital or that one, this medication or that one, etc.) as well as your finances. Someone will need access to your bank account to pay your mortgage, utilities, etc. so they do not fall behind.

If you do not choose who this person will be, then the state decides for you. If you are married, then your spouse decides. This is still the case if you have filed for divorce but not yet come to a Judgment. If you have filed for divorce, then it is likely that you do NOT want your estranged spouse making medical and financial decisions for you. In that case, you need to create powers of attorney naming someone else.

Everyone who is 18 or over should have these documents prepared to ensure that their medical wishes are followed and that they have someone who can make both financial and medical decisions for them if they are injured or ill, and unable to do so.  Many parents believe that they are the automatic decision-makers for their adult children, but this is not the case.  If you have an adult child, too, they should have a power of attorney naming you as agent so that you can make decisions on their behalf, examine medical records, and handle finances should they be injured or in an accident.

Painful estate planning questions you must answer to avoid disastrous estate planning mistakes

Many of my estate planning clients have put off their estate planning for months, and even years sometimes. Part of this is because death or disability is something we don’t want to think about, and part of it is because some of the questions are difficult to answer.  What my clients do not always understand is that (1) it’s my job to help them to make the decisions, and (2) if they don’t decide, then someone else – a stranger – will decide for them. Here are some questions you need to consider when thinking about estate planning:

  1. The guardian for your children. This is probably the most important decision you will make.  In case the unthinkable happens – you and your spouse are out together on date night and get into an accident and are both hospitalized or worse. What do you think will happen to your children, who are at home with the 19-year old neighbor babysitting? The police will likely take your children into protective custody – foster care – until a proper guardian is named.  If you have a formally-named guardian in your estate planning documents (and not some hastily-written page), then you can avoid this awful experience for your children.
  2. Who will get your stuff. If you don’t decide who gets your stuff, the state will. And perhaps more importantly than the couch and the jewelry is the estate itself.  Do you have minor children? Do you want them to inherit hundreds of thousands of dollars when they reach 18? Do you perhaps want to hold back some of the estate to pay for college, or at least to let them mature a little before coming into (and losing) a great deal of money right at 18? The only want to do this is through trusts.
  3. What do you want the doctors to do if you are in an irreversible coma? If you don’t decide how you want the doctors to treat you and what extraordinary measures will be taken to save your life, then the doctors will endeavor to keep you alive as long as they can.  Do you want to survive by machine alone? If not, then you need to tell someone!  Tell your parents and your children, and create a power of attorney that legally records your wishes.  If you don’t do this, you could cause your family to scramble to determine what YOU would have wanted.
  4. Who will help you to manage your assets and estate if you can’t? Most of us are more likely to experience a slow decline than go out with a bang.  Because of the advances in medical and health care, we are living longer and with better-quality lives. But as we slow down, there is a chance that we will start to lose our ability to pay our bills and manage our finances.  To avoid the painful, time-consuming and expensive process of conservatorship, each of us needs to designate someone to make decisions on our behalf if we become unable to.  This is relevant to individuals of all ages, as surviving traumatic brain injuries is getting more and more common.
  5. Where are your documents? Part of creating your estate plan in making sure everything is in one place: your will, trust(s), powers of attorney, bank/investment/life insurance/retirement statements, pre-need funeral planning documents, and passwords/keys/online account information.  There is nothing worse than making your grieving family rummage through your stuff to find what they need.

Estate planning is the last thing that you can do for your family to make your passing easier. Isn’t your family worth it?

Why a power of attorney is not enough: Do you have this critical document in your estate plan?

If you created your estate plan more than a couple years ago, you may be missing a crucial piece to the puzzle.  In the past, a power of attorney for health care decisions, which in California includes your advance directive (or living will), was sufficient to name another person (your “agent”) to make health care decisions on your behalf.  But the enactment of HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), which was designed to limit the access to your medical records – and was focused on insurance companies – actually resulted in limiting the access to your medical records for everyone, including your agent on your health care power of attorney.

Worse, if you don’t have a health care power of attorney, you may think that your “next of kin” – your spouse, your children, or your parents – will have access to your medical information and to be able to make decisions on your behalf.  Unfortunately, with HIPAA and the stricter privacy regulations on doctors and hospitals, this is not often the case.  While you may be looked to for decision-making, if you want to see the medical records or tests results themselves, for example to get a second opinion, you won’t be able to, not even with a power of attorney.

What’s necessary now is called a “HIPAA Authorization,” which I have been using for a couple years now.  It allows the individuals you designate to have access to your medical records and can save your loved ones from hassle and hardship should you be incapacitated.  I use a separate form document, though my older health care powers of attorney included the HIPAA authorization in the body of the power of attorney.

I’ve talked already about the importance of everyone having a power of attorney once they turn 18, but what is also critically important is that you have all the correct documents in your estate plan as well, and a complete estate plan includes a HIPAA authorization.

Celebrities and estate planning

There are frequent examples of famous names and faces that pass away, leaving us with reminders of the importance of estate planning at all ages.  In recent weeks:

  1. The importance of planning young: Sarah Burke.  We all think that we’re going to live forever.  I think this is part of human nature.  We also think that, if we’re healthy, then we will be healthy forever.  Unfortunately, accidents and illnesses happen to the young and to the healthy, as the death of 29-year old Olympic skier Sarah Burke tells us. If you don’t have a medical power of attorney in place, you don’t choose who will be making the decisions on your behalf.  If you don’t have a living will (part of the power of attorney for medical decisions in California), then your family doesn’t know what your wishes are.
  2. The importance of a power of attorney: Etta James.  When Etta James died, her family was in the midst of a conservatorship battle.  A conservatorship is the formal title of the person given legal rights to make decisions on behalf of your estate/assets and of your medical decisions.  If you have a power of attorney, in most cases a conservatorship is not necessary.  Etta James’ husband had conservatorship over the singer, and in just late December, asked the court to release $500,000 for her monthly medical care, the cost of which was $30,000.  The court released $350,000.  Because of concern over her medical care and the cost, her two sons petitioned the court to change the conservatorship over to them.  The last thing you want your family to have to contend with when you are gravely ill is an issue such as this.  If you make plans ahead of time, you and your family will both be protected.
  3. The importance of planning, period: Steig Larsson. The author of the widely successful “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” trilogy died suddenly of a heart attack at age 50. He had no will.  While his estate went to his family members, his girlfriend of 32 years has possession of a fourth unpublished manuscript, and the legal battle rages on.

Whatever you age, size of estate, or health status, you need an estate plan to protect yourself and your loved ones.  Why wait?  Make a FREE appointment online now.

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
  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?