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Can I Draft My Own Will?

A common question among people is “Can I write my own will?” or “Do I really need a lawyer to do my estate planning?”

The Frisky‘s recent article, “Why You Should Hire A Lawyer to Write Your Estate Plan,” says that writing your own estate plan can be a complicated thing—and one that a non-attorney may find very difficult.

It’s More Than a Will. Many people believe that a will and an estate plan are the same. This is not true. An estate plan is a legal strategy that prepares you for potential incapacity and eventual death. A will is a legal document that’s part of the estate plan.

Money, Time and Energy Savings. Creating your own estate plan will be more time-consuming than you may have thought. Hiring a lawyer to do this will cost you—but it will cost you more, if you decide to do it on your own. Hiring a lawyer for your estate plan will save you time, because he or she is trained in the law to do it the right way.

If you do finish your own estate plan and you realize that it really is a mess, you can hire a lawyer to do it over for you. However, calculate how much time, energy, and resources you’ve spent on making on your quick DIY estate plan. Work with an experienced estate planning attorney and create a sound estate plan.

It’s Complicated. If you don’t fully understand what you’re doing, estate planning can drive you nuts. That’s because every word you write is crucial. Everything you write counts and may be interpreted differently. The law in this area also changes all the time. Agencies in the federal government, the IRS and the courts are always creating new regulations and decisions. Your estate planning attorney monitors all of this, makes sure your estate plan is in compliance and takes the best advantage of the current law.

Objectivity. Another thing your attorney adds to the mix—in addition to legal expertise—is objectivity. Your estate planning attorney will give you a clean, unbiased view of your current situation, along with a fair and honest assessment of your options.

Reference: The Frisky (February 6, 2019) “Why You Should Hire A Lawyer to Write Your Estate Plan”

 

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How Do I Prepare my Parents for Alzheimer’s?

Can your mom just sell her house, despite her diagnosis of Alzheimer’s?

The (Bryan TX) Eagle reports in the recent article “MENTAL CLARITY: Shining a light on the capacity to sign Texas documents” that the concept of “mental capacity” is complicated. There’s considerable confusion about incapacity. The article explains that different legal documents have a different degree of required capacity. The bar for signing a Power of Attorney, a Warranty Deed, a Contract, a Divorce Decree, or a Settlement Agreement is a little lower than for signing a Will. The individual signing legal documents must be capable of understanding and appreciating what he or she is signing, as well as the effect of the document.

The answer the question of whether the mom can sign the deed to her house over to the buyer.  is likely “yes.” She must understand that she’s selling her house, and that, once the document is signed, the house will belong to someone else. A terminal diagnosis or a neurodegenerative disease doesn’t automatically mean that an individual can’t sign legal documents. A case-by-case assessment is required to see if the document will be valid.

The fact that a person is unable to write his or her name doesn’t mean they lack capacity. If a senior can’t sign her name (possibly due to tremors or neurodegeneration), she can sign with an “X”. She could place her hand on top of someone else’s and allow the other person to sign her name. If this is completed before witnesses and the notary, that would be legal.

A hard part of Alzheimer’s is that a person’s mental clarity can come and go. Capacity can be fluid in the progress of a neurodegenerative or other terminal disease. Because of this, the best time to sign critical documents is sooner rather than later. No one can say the “window of capacity” will remain open for a certain amount of time.

Some signs should prompt you to move more quickly. These include things like the following:

  • Short-term memory loss;
  • Personality changes (e.g., unusual anger);
  • Confusing up or forgetting common-usage words and names; and
  • Disorientation and changes in depth perception.

Any of the signs above could be caused by dementia or many other problems. Talk to your parent’s physician and an elder law attorney. He or she can discuss the options, document your parent’s legal capacity, and get the right documents drafted quickly.

Reference: The (Bryan TX) Eagle (February 7, 2019) “MENTAL CLARITY: Shining a light on the capacity to sign Texas documents”

 

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Protect A Life of Working and Saving from Long Term Care Costs

Every month, Lawrence Cappiello writes a check to a nursing home for $12,000 to pay for the cost of his wife’s nursing home care. Two years ago, his net worth was $500,000. In less than two years, the Cappiello’s savings will be gone. This unsettling story is explained in the article “How to Keep LTC Costs From Devouring Your Client’s Life Savings” from Insurance News Net. He is suffering from nursing home sticker shock and says he should have known better.

Cappiello was a professor at the University of Buffalo for 25 years. During that time, he taught an introductory course on health care and human services that touched on the costs to consumers. He said it was clear even then, that the cost of health care was going to escalate out of control.

To qualify for Medicaid payments of nursing home care in New York State, residents are permitted to own no more than $15,450 in nonexempt assets. However, elder lawyers, whose practices focus on these exact issues, say that the way to protect the family’s assets, is to take steps years before nursing home care is needed. Some general recommendations:

  • Signing over the deed of the home to children or any others who would otherwise inherit it from you in a will. The transaction would need to stipulate that you have life use of the home.
  • Establishing an irrevocable trust, that upon death, transfers the house to the beneficiaries. There must be language that ensures that you have life use of the house.
  • Giving away savings and other financial assets.

Transfers of any assets must take place more than five years before applying for Medicaid nursing home coverage. If they have been given away or transferred within the five year “look-back” period, then there is a chance that they may still qualify, or they may have to wait five years.

That is why planning with an experienced elder law attorney is so critical for families, especially when one of the spouses is facing a known illness that will get worse with time. There are steps that can be taken, but they must be done in a timely manner.

Many older people are not exactly jumping with joy at the idea of handing over their assets, even when relationships with adult children are good. The idea of giving up assets and the family home is a marker of the passage of time and the inevitability of death. These are not things that we enjoy considering. However, taking these steps in advance, can make a huge difference in the quality of the well spouse’s life.

It should be noted that a sick spouse can move assets to a healthy spouse, to make the sick spouse lawfully poor and eligible for Medicaid. There is no look back period or penalty for interspousal transfers. This sounds like a very simple solution. However, these are complex matters that need the help of an experienced attorney. If it were so easy, countless spouses would not be facing their own impoverishment because of an ill spouse.

Reference: Insurance News Net (Feb. 4, 2019) “How to Keep LTC Costs From Devouring Your Client’s Life Savings”

 

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How Does a Life Estate Deed Work for an Executor?

What should this person do next? What is allowed and what is not? This complex question is addressed in My San Antonio’s article, “Life estate deed by agent must preserve estate plan.” First, let’s clarify what a life estate deed is, and why it was used in this person’s estate plan.

A life estate deed is a real estate ownership arrangement, by which the owner gifts or sells to someone, in this case to the beneficiary child, a “remainder interest” in a piece of real estate property. The owner of the property holds a “life estate” in the real estate, which includes the right to live in the property, use it and even profit from it, as long as the life estate holder is alive. The remainder interest holder, the heir, can’t interfere with the life estate holder’s use of the property, while they are living.

The remainder interest holder does have an ownership interest in the property, which is granted in the life estate deed. The IRS publishes a table so that the value of the remainder interest can be calculated. Here’s why that matters:

  • If the remainder is gifted, then the IRS table determines the gift tax amount.
  • If the property is sold while the life holder is alive, the proceeds are split with the remainder holder, with the value determined from the IRS tables.
  • If the life estate holder needs to apply for Medicaid, the gift value of the remainder will cause a disqualification.

If the life estate holder decides to sell the property, permission from the remainder holder is required. The life estate holder may not have to pay taxes, but the remainder interest holder is likely to owe capital gain taxes, if the property is sold.

There is a special type of estate deed which changes the description above. Known as an enhanced life estate deed, or a “lady bird deed,” the owner is given the right to cancel the deed at any time. Since there is no value transferred to the remainder holder, there is no gift tax, no disqualification from Medicaid and the life estate holder can sell without needing to obtain permission from the remainder holder.

In the example above, the father did not sell his life estate interest, but retained it until the date of his death. The first challenge is proving ownership of the property. The original life estate deed should be proof of the ownership, but it must be combined with proof of death. The official death certificate will be needed to be presented to the title company, which will establish ownership under the original life estate deed.

The Alzheimer’s diagnosis creates another hurdle. Title companies are cautious when circumstances could be interpreted as self-dealing. They may ask if the agent had preserved the principal’s estate plan. In other words, did the father’s will give the house to the agent or to someone else? The agent may not act in a way that violates the existing estate plan. The durable power of attorney must be recorded with the county clerk for the life estate deed to be valid.

This is a situation where a qualified estate planning attorney will be able to ensure that proper measures are taken to protect the heir, as well as the estate.

Reference: My San Antonio (Feb. 11, 2019) “Life estate deed by agent must preserve estate plan”

 

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Be Careful Granting Power of Attorney

Power of Attorney abuse has emerged as a serious problem for elderly people who are vulnerable to people they trust more than they should, reports the Sandusky Register in the article “Consumer beware: Understanding the powers of a Power of Attorney” The same is true for a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care document, which should be of great concern for seniors and their family members.

This illustrates the importance of a Power of Attorney document: the person, also known as the “principal,” is giving the authority to act on their behalf in all financial and personal affairs to another person, known as their “agent.” That means the agent is empowered to do anything and everything the person themselves would do, from making withdrawals from a bank account, to selling a home or a car or more mundane acts, such as paying bills and filing taxes.

The problem is that there is nothing to stop someone, once they have Power of Attorney, from taking advantage of the situation. No one is watching out for the person’s best interests, to make sure bank accounts aren’t drained or assets sold. The agent can abuse that financial power to the detriment of the senior and to benefit the agent themselves. It is a crime when it happens. However, this is what often occurs: seniors are so embarrassed that they gave this power to someone they thought they could trust, that they are reluctant to report the crime.

Similarly, an unchecked Health Care Power of Attorney can lead to abuse, if the wrong person is named.

The following is a real example of how this can go wrong. An adult child arranged for their trusting parent to be diagnosed as suffering from dementia by an unscrupulous psychiatrist, when the parent did not have dementia.

The adult child then had the parent admitted into a nursing home, misrepresenting the admission as a temporary stay for rehabilitation. They then kept the parent in the nursing home, using the dementia diagnosis as a reason for her to remain in the nursing home.

The parent had to hire an attorney and prove to the court that she was competent and able to live independently, to be able to return to her home.

Meet with an experienced estate planning attorney to discuss your situation and figure out who might become named as Power of Attorney and Health Care Power of attorney on your behalf. The attorney will be able to help you make sure that your estate plan, including your will, is properly prepared and discuss with you the best options for these important decisions.

Reference: Sandusky Register (Feb. 5, 2019) “Consumer beware: Understanding the powers of a Power of Attorney”

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What Doesn’t Medicare Cover?

Medicare Part A and Part B are also known as Original Medicare or Traditional Medicare. These two parts cover a large portion of your medical expenses, after you turn age 65. Part A is hospital insurance that helps pay for inpatient hospital stays, stays in skilled nursing facilities, surgery, hospice care and even some home health care.

Part B is your medical insurance that helps pay for doctors’ visits, outpatient care, some preventive services and some medical equipment and supplies. Most seniors can enroll in Medicare three months before the month they turn 65.

Kiplinger’s article, “7 Things Medicare Doesn’t Cover,” takes a closer look at what isn’t covered by Medicare, plus information about supplemental insurance policies and strategies that can help cover the additional costs, so you don’t wind up with unanticipated medical bills in retirement.

Prescription Drugs. Medicare doesn’t provide coverage for outpatient prescription drugs. However, you can purchase a separate Part D prescription-drug policy for that or a Medicare Advantage plan that covers both medical and drug costs. You can sign up for Part D or Medicare Advantage coverage, when you enroll in Medicare or when you lose other drug coverage. You can switch policies during open enrollment each fall.

Long-Term Care. Medicare provides coverage for some skilled nursing services but not for custodial care. That includes things like help with bathing, dressing and other activities of daily living. However, you can purchase LTC insurance or a combination long-term-care and life insurance policy to cover these costs.

Deductibles and Co-Pays. Part A covers hospital stays and Part B covers doctors’ services and outpatient care. Nonetheless, you have to pay out-of-pocket for deductibles and co-payments. Note that over your lifetime, Medicare will only help pay for a total of 60 days beyond the 90-day limit (“lifetime reserve days”). After that, you’ll pay the full hospital cost. Part B typically covers 80% of doctors’ services, lab tests and x-rays. However, you must pay 20% of the costs, after a $183 deductible (in 2018). A Medigap (Medicare supplement) policy or Medicare Advantage plan can fill in the gaps, if you don’t have the supplemental coverage from a retiree health insurance policy. If you purchase a Medigap policy within six months of signing up for Medicare Part B, insurers can’t reject you or charge more because of preexisting conditions. Medicare Advantage plans have medical and drug coverage through a private insurer. They also may also provide additional coverage, like vision and dental care. You can switch Medicare Advantage plans annually in open enrollment.

Most Dental Care. Medicare will not provide coverage for routine dental visits, teeth cleanings, fillings, dentures or most tooth extractions. There are Medicare Advantage plans that cover basic cleanings and x-rays, but they usually have an annual coverage cap of about $1,500. You could also get coverage from a separate dental insurance policy or a dental discount plan.

Routine Vision Care.  Medicare doesn’t cover routine eye exams or glasses (exceptions include an annual eye exam, if you have diabetes or eyeglasses after certain kinds of cataract surgery). However, some Medicare Advantage plans give you vision coverage, or you may be able to purchase a separate supplemental policy that provides vision care alone or includes both dental and vision care. If you saved money in a health savings account before you enroll in Medicare, you can use the money tax-free at any point for glasses, contact lenses, prescription sunglasses, and other vision care out-of-pocket expenses.

Hearing Aids. Medicare doesn’t cover routine hearing exams or hearing aids, but some Medicare Advantage plans cover hearing aids and fitting exams, and some discount programs provide lower-cost hearing aids.

Medical Care Overseas. Medicare usually doesn’t cover care you receive while traveling outside of the U.S., except for very limited situations (like on a cruise ship within six hours of a U.S. port). However, Medigap plans C through G, M, and N cover 80% of the cost of emergency care abroad with a lifetime limit of $50,000. There are some Medicare Advantage plans that cover emergency care abroad. Another option is to purchase a travel insurance policy that covers some medical expenses, while you’re outside of the U.S.

Reference: Kiplinger (May 23, 2019) “7 Things Medicare Doesn’t Cover”

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Here’s Why You Need an Estate Plan

It’s always the right time to do your estate planning, but it’s most critical when you have beneficiaries who are minors or with special needs, says the Capital Press in the recent article, “Ag Finance: Why you need to do estate planning.”

While it’s likely that most adult children can work things out, even if it’s costly and time-consuming in probate, minor young children must have protections in place. Wills are frequently written, so the estate goes to the child when he reaches age 18. However, few teens can manage big property at that age. A trust can help, by directing that the property will be held for him by a trustee or executor until a set age, like 25 or 30.

Probate is the default process to administer an estate after someone’s death, when a will or other documents are presented in court and an executor is appointed to manage it. It also gives creditors a chance to present claims for money owed to them. Distribution of assets will occur only after all proper notices have been issued, and all outstanding bills have been paid.

Probate can be expensive. However, wise estate planning can help most families avoid this and ensure the transition of wealth and property in a smooth manner. Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney about establishing a trust. Farmers can name themselves as the beneficiaries during their lifetime, and instruct to whom it will pass after their death. A living trust can be amended or revoked at any time, if circumstances change.

The title of the farm is transferred to the trust with the farm’s former owner as trustee. With a trust, it makes it easier to avoid probate because nothing’s in his name, and the property can transition to the beneficiaries without having to go to court. Living trusts also help in the event of incapacity or a disease, like Alzheimer’s, to avoid conservatorship (guardianship of an adult who loses capacity). It can also help to decrease capital gains taxes, since the property transfers before their death.

If you have several children, but only two work with you on the farm, an attorney can help you with how to divide an estate that is land rich and cash poor.

Reference: Capital Press (December 20, 2018) “Ag Finance: Why you need to do estate planning”

Suggested Key Terms: Estate Planning Lawyer, Wills, Capacity, Guardianship, Conservatorship, Capital Gains Tax, Trustee, Revocable Living Trust, Asset Protection, Probate Court, Inheritance, Power of Attorney

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