The 6 Biggest Estate Planning Mistakes

If you’re like most people, you have the best of intentions regarding how you want your estate distributed when you die or your affairs handled should you become incapacitated. Unfortunately, without proper planning, your best intentions may not be enough. Here are six of the most common estate planning mistakes people make:

  1. Failing to plan. The biggest mistake is failing to create a plan in the first place. Without an estate plan, your assets will be distributed according to the law in the state where you live. Usually, if you are married, your spouse is entitled to a portion of your estate and the rest is divided among other relatives. If you are single, your estate may go to your children, parents, or siblings. If you have absolutely no living relatives, then your estate will go to the state. This is probably not what you want to have happen to your assets. In addition, without an estate plan, you have no way to name who will be the guardian of your children or who will act for you if you become incapacitated.
  2. Doing it yourself. It is tempting to try to save money by using a do-it-yourself online will service or just writing something up yourself, but these poorly drafted documents may only cost you or your heirs additional money in the end. It is impossible to know, without a legal education and years of experience, what the right legal solution is to any particular situation and what planning opportunities are available. If there is anything about a family situation that’s not commonplace, using a DIY estate planning program means taking a large risk that can affect one’s family for generations to come.  And only an attorney can determine whether a particular situation qualifies as commonplace. The problems created by not getting competent legal advice probably won’t be borne by the person creating the will, but they may well be shouldered by the person’s children and grandchildren.
  3. Not planning for disability. A properly drafted estate plan not only specifies what will happen to your assets when you die; it also spells out what happens if you become incapacitated. It is important to have documents, such as a power of attorney and health care proxy, that appoint someone you trust to act on your behalf if you can’t act for yourself.
  4. Failing to fund a trust. Once you draft an estate plan, you aren’t done. If your estate plan includes a trust, you need to actually fund the trust — by retitling assets in the name of the trust — or the trust will be useless.
  5. Not checking your beneficiary designations. You should periodically review your retirement plan beneficiary designations to make sure they aren’t outdated. Retirement accounts do not follow your will or trust—they are distributed according to the forms you fill out with the insurance company. You need to make sure you have named a beneficiary and the beneficiary is who you want it to be.
  6. Not reviewing the plan. Once you’ve got an estate plan in place, it is important to keep it up to date. Circumstances change over time and your estate plan needs to keep up with these changes. Major changes that may affect your plan include getting married or divorced, having children, or experiencing an increase or decrease in assets. Even if you don’t have any major changes, you should review your plan periodically to make sure it still expresses your wishes.

To ensure that you’re not making these and other common estate planning mistakes, reach out to the MSW team: contact Amy Stratton or Kristen Prull Moonan.

Decisions to Make for Your Power of Attorney

A power of attorney may seem like a simple document, but there are several important decisions that need to be made when creating one. From whom to appoint to what powers to grant, care and consideration should be put into each choice.

A power of attorney is one of the most important estate planning documents you can have. It allows a person you appoint — your “attorney-in-fact” or agent — to act in your place for financial or other purposes when and if you ever become incapacitated or if you can’t act on your own behalf. It can permit the agent to pay your bills, make investment decisions, take planning steps, and take care of your family when you can’t do so yourself.  In theory, all the power of attorney should need to say is the following:

I, Joe Blow, hereby appoint Janet Planet to step in for me in the event of my incapacity to handle my financial and legal matters.

But in fact most powers of attorney run to several pages and involve a number of important decisions. Here are some of the decisions you will need to make on your power of attorney:

  • Whom to appoint. Of course, you need to appoint someone you trust to have your best interests in mind. The person also needs to be organized and responsible and have the time available (or be able to make the time available) to carry out the functions of paying bills, guiding investments and handling any legal matters that may arise. Generally, people appoint family members to this role, but sometimes none of their relatives are appropriate, in which case they may appoint a friend or even an accountant, attorney or clergy person. If there’s no one to appoint, despite the benefits of the power of attorney, you may need to resort to a court-appointed conservator in the event of incapacity.
  • How many agents to appoint. You may appoint one or more agents on your power of attorney. Having multiple agents allows more than one person to share the responsibility and permits them to divvy up tasks. If you appoint more than one, make sure that the document permits each agent to act on his or her own. Requiring them to act together provides checks and balances, but it could become very cumbersome if all of your agents have to sign every check or other document. Also, if you appoint more than one agent, make sure they get along and communicate. If not, misunderstandings can arise. It is generally better not to name more than two agents, but parents of three children may not want one to be left out. Some attorneys prepare two separate powers of attorney naming different agents rather than two agents on the same document. The problem with this is that anyone dealing with either agent may not know that the other document exists and it may discourage communication between the agents.
  • Alternates. In addition or instead of naming multiple attorneys-in-fact, you can name one or more alternates in case the first person or people you appoint cannot serve. For instance, you may name your spouse as your agent and your children as alternates. If you do name alternates, make sure the document is very clear about when the alternate takes over and what evidence he or she will need to present when using the power of attorney. Otherwise, a bank or other financial institutions might deny access to an account if it’s not certain that the alternate has indeed taken over. For this reason, it may be better to appoint multiple agents rather than one and then an alternate. This avoids any question of proof when the second agent steps in.
  • “Springing” or “durable.” The idea behind a power of attorney is that it will be used only when the person who creates it (the “principal” in legal speak) becomes incapacitated. Interestingly, traditionally powers of attorney expired when the principal became incompetent, the theory being that the attorney-in-fact stands in the principal’s shoes and can only do what the principal can do; if the principal is incompetent, then so is the agent. Every state has passed laws providing for “durable” powers of attorney that survive the incapacity of the principal. But when should it take effect? A “springing” power of attorney only takes affect when the principal becomes incapacitated. The problem is that springing powers of attorney create a hurdle for the agent to get over to use the document. When presented with a springing power of attorney, a financial institution will require proof that the incapacity has occurred, often in the form of a letter from a doctor. Obtaining that letter will be one more task the attorney-in-fact will have to carry out, often when already overwhelmed dealing with a parent’s illness while still trying to stay employed and care for children. It can also mean a delay in access to funds needed to pay for care or to maintain a home. In most cases, if you trust someone enough to name him or her as your agent, you also trust him or her not to use the document until the appropriate time. And if this trust is misplaced, then you can always revoke the appointment. A final argument for executing a durable, rather than a springing, power of attorney is that it may be needed when the principal is competent, but unavailable. For instance, a financial or legal matter may come up while the principal is vacationing in Europe. It could be important that the attorney-in-fact can step in and act while the principal is out of the country.
  • Gifting. Powers of attorney usually go on for several pages listing the various powers the attorney-in-fact may carry out. This is because financial institutions and tax authorities often look for and demand specific authorization for the tasks the agent is seeking to perform. One of the most important powers is the power to gift. While strictly speaking allowing your agent to make gifts may not always be in your best interest — it is usually better to have more money than less — it may well be what you would want to do if you were competent to act on your own. You may want to support children and grandchildren or to take steps to reduce taxes or qualify for public benefits. Often, power of attorney forms limit these gifts to the annual gift tax exclusion — currently, $15,000 per individual per year. However, since you have to give away an estimated $11.7 million (in 2021) to be subject to any gift taxes, limiting the gifting powers in the power of attorney to the annual exclusion may not be necessary.
  • Trust powers. Similar to the power to make gifts, it can be important to authorize the attorney-in-fact to make, amend, and fund trusts on behalf of the principal. Power of attorney forms often permit the funding of preexisting trusts but not their modification or the creation of new trusts. These powers can be extremely important in the context of long-term care planning, asset protection planning or special needs planning for spouses, children, and grandchildren.
  • Copies and storage. Once the agents and wording of the power of attorney have been determined, how many originals should you have and where should they go? Most powers of attorney include language saying that a copy should be treated like an original, but this is not always honored by third parties. In addition, an original may be inaccessible for some periods of time. For instance, in transactions involving real estate, an original power of attorney must be recorded with the deed. The power of attorney will be returned, but perhaps not for several months. One option is to execute three original powers of attorney — the attorney can keep one and you can take two. You have the option to keep the originals yourself or give them to your agents. Usually, people keep the originals and tell their agents where the documents are located in case they are needed.

One other important consideration is to see if any of the financial institutions with which you have accounts have their own power of attorney forms. If so, make sure you execute their forms as well as a general durable power of attorney because banks and investment houses have been known to reject powers of attorney that are not their own for spurious reasons.

Executing a power of attorney is not as simple as it first seems. To learn more, reach out to the MSW team: contact Amy Stratton or Kristen Prull Moonan.

Hiring a Caregiver: Should You Employ One Yourself or Go Through an Agency?

Most seniors prefer to stay at home as long as possible rather than move into a nursing home. For many families, this means eventually hiring a caregiver to look after an aging relative. There are two main ways to hire someone: directly or through a home health agency.

Hiring directly
When you hire a caregiver directly, you need to consider all the tax and liability issues. As an employer, you are responsible for filing payroll taxes, tax forms, and verifying that the employee can legally work in the United States. If you pay $2,300 or more in wages in 2021 to any one employee, you need to withhold and pay Social Security and Medicare taxes. If you pay more than $1,500 in wages in 2021, you need to pay unemployment taxes. In addition, a private caregiver may not carry his or her own liability insurance or workers’ compensation. If an accident occurs on the job, you could be responsible.

The benefit of hiring a caregiver directly is that you have more control over whom you hire and can choose someone whom you feel is right for your family. Another benefit is that hiring privately is usually cheaper than hiring through a home health agency. For more information from Caring.com on hiring a caregiver directly, click here.

The agency route
When you hire through a home health agency, the agency is the employer, so you don’t need to worry about tax and liability issues. The agency takes care of screening the employees, doing background checks, and providing insurance. In addition, a licensed home care agency must provide ongoing supervision to its employees. It can help the employees deal with difficult family situations or changing needs. The agency may also be able to provide back-up if a regular caregiver is not available.

The downside of going through an agency is not having as much input into the selection of the caregiver. Another consideration is that caregivers may change or alternate, causing a disruption in care and confusion. To find a home health care agency near you, click here.

To learn more, reach out to the MSW team: contact Amy Stratton or Kristen Prull Moonan.

In 2022, Social Security Beneficiaries Will See the Biggest Increase in 39 Years

The year was 1983: The U.S. invaded Granada. A gallon of gas cost 96 cents. Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ video premiered. That year was also the last time that Social Security recipients saw a cost-of-living increase steeper than the one just announced for 2022. This year, Social Security benefits will rise 5.9 percent, the sharpest upsurge since 1983’s 7.4 percent jump.

Cost-of-living increases are tied to the consumer price index, and rising inflation rates and gas prices caused by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic mean Social Security recipients will get a large boost in 2022. The 5.9 percent increase dwarfs last year’s 1.3 percent rise, and over the past decade hikes have averaged just 1.65 percent. The average monthly benefit of $1,565 in 2021 will go up by $92 a month to $1,657 a month for an individual beneficiary, or $19,884 yearly.

The cost-of-living change also affects the maximum amount of earnings subject to the Social Security tax, which will grow from $142,800 to $147,000.

For 2022, the monthly federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payment standard will be $841 for an individual and $1,261 for a couple.

Part of the increase will be eaten up by higher Medicare Part B premiums, however. The standard monthly premium for Medicare Part B enrollees has not been announced yet, but it is projected to rise $10 a month to $158.30.  And the 5.9 percent Social Security increase may not be enough for seniors to keep pace with rising health care and prescription drug costs.

“You’re glad that you get a 5.9 percent increase, but it doesn’t feel like you’re getting 5.9 percent when all of your other costs are going up much higher,” said Nancy Altman, president of the advocacy group Social Security Works.

Most beneficiaries will be able to find out their specific cost-of-living adjustment online by logging on to my Social Security in December 2021. While you can still receive your increase notice by mail, you have the option to get the notice online instead.

For more on the 2022 Social Security benefit levels, click here.

To learn more, reach out to the MSW team: contact Amy Stratton or Kristen Prull Moonan.

How to Use Intrafamily Loans as Part of Your Estate Plan

When interest rates are low, intrafamily loans can be a good way to assist a relative (typically a child) with purchasing a house or a family business, and in certain circumstances they can be used to gift money to the next generation.

An intrafamily loan allows family members to borrow money from each other at a special rate, but it must be structured properly so that the loan is not considered a gift. This means the loan must have a written promissory note, require repayment, and charge interest (if the loan is for more than $10,000). The IRS sets the Applicable Federal Rate (AFR) each month, and the interest on the intrafamily loan must equal the AFR. The rate is different, depending on the term of the loan, which can be a short-term loan (0-3 years), a mid-term loan (3-9 years), or a long-term loan (9 or more years). The AFR is typically lower than the interest rate a bank would charge, and the borrower’s credit doesn’t affect the loan, so someone with bad credit can still get a loan.

When structured properly, intrafamily loans can assist children with purchases and pass on assets. The following are some of the ways intrafamily loans can be used:

  • Pay for a house. An intrafamily loan can be used to fund a mortgage for children or grandchildren. Because the interest rates are lower, the children will pay less overall than going through a traditional mortgage lender.
  • Pass on a family business. Depending on how large the business is, giving away a business could exceed the prevailing gift tax exemption. Instead, parents can loan money to a child to purchase the family business. Parents who are financially able could use the annual gift limit ($15,000 in 2021) to give children money to repay the loan. Alternatively, if the family business produces income, the child can use the income to pay back the loan. Even if the business doesn’t exceed the gift tax exemption, this can be a good strategy for parents who want to pass on the business, but still need a steady income stream.
  • Pass on assets. Intrafamily loans can be used as a method of passing on assets provided the borrower can invest the money in a way that brings in a higher rate of return than the interest rate on the loan. Given the low interest rate on intrafamily loans, this can be a successful strategy. If the loan is a large one, it may be wise to loan the money to a family trust. The trust invests the money and repays the loan. After the loan is repaid, the remaining assets are protected by the trust and can be distributed to beneficiaries as dictated by the trust terms.

The downside of an intrafamily loan is the same as with any loan: The loan must be repaid. If the child defaults on the loan, it could trigger a gift tax for the person making the loan. It is also important to have the correct paperwork and documentation. Intrafamily loans should only be set up in consultation with your attorney.

Reach out to the MSW team: contact Amy Stratton or Kristen Prull Moonan.

Make Sure Your Estate Plan and Other Essential Documents Are Safe from Disasters

It’s an unfortunate reality that with the increasing number of natural disasters across the country, including fires, floods, and hurricanes, the chance that you could lose your house and possessions has become more likely. In the event of such a calamity, it is important that your estate planning and other important documents are beyond reach and easily retrievable.

If your home is destroyed by a natural disaster or another event, you will want to be able to access important information quickly. First, you need to assemble all your crucial documents and information, including the following:

  • Account numbers and passwords. Keep a list of your bank and e-mail accounts and securely store your passwords.
  • Contact information. Make sure you know how to contact your attorney, advisors, and insurance company.
  • Legal documents. You should have copies of all your legal documents, including your will, trust, power of attorney, and health care proxy. You also need to know where any deeds and insurance contracts are kept.
  • Tax returns. It is recommended that you have three years’ worth of tax returns stored.
  • Medical information. You need to keep track of any prescription medicine and health insurance information.

Once you have all your documents and information, you need to store them in a safe and secure location that will survive a natural disaster. A fireproof and floodproof safe in your house is one way to safeguard documents; a safe deposit box at a bank is also an option. Your attorney may be able to store your legal documents for you. Many firms offer secure storage of documents.

Another option is online storage. There are online cloud storage systems that ensure your documents are available to you just by logging on. Dropbox, idrive, and Microsoft OneDrive are some online storage options. If you use online storage, make sure you know your passwords. If your information is on a hard drive or thumb drive, store the drives in a secure location, not just in a desk drawer.

Regardless of which storage option you use, be sure your loved ones know where the information is and how to access it.

To make certain you have all the pieces of your estate plan in place and stored properly, reach out to the MSW team: contact Amy Stratton or Kristen Prull Moonan.

Medicaid’s Attempt to Ensure the Healthy Spouse Has Enough Income: The MMMNA

When most of a couple’s income is in the name of the spouse who is receiving Medicaid, the spouse remaining in the community may wonder what he or she will live on. Medicaid has created some protections for the community spouse.

Although Medicaid limits the assets that the spouse of a Medicaid applicant can retain, the income of the “community spouse” is not counted in determining the Medicaid applicant’s eligibility. Only income in the applicant’s name is counted. Thus, even if the community spouse is still working and earning, say, $5,000 a month, he or she will not have to contribute to the cost of caring for a spouse in a nursing home if the spouse is covered by Medicaid. In some states, however, if the community spouse’s income exceeds certain levels, he or she does have to make a monetary contribution towards the cost of the institutionalized spouse’s care. The community spouse’s income is not considered in determining eligibility, but there is a subsequent contribution requirement.

But what if most of the couple’s income is in the name of the institutionalized spouse and the community spouse’s income is not enough to live on? In such cases, the community spouse is entitled to some or all of the monthly income of the institutionalized spouse. How much the community spouse is entitled to depends on what the local Medicaid agency determines to be a minimum income level for the community spouse. This figure, known as the minimum monthly maintenance needs allowance or MMMNA, is calculated for each community spouse according to a complicated formula based on his or her housing costs. The MMMNA may range from a low of $2,177.50 to a high of $3,259.50 a month (in 2021). If the community spouse’s own income falls below his or her MMMNA, the shortfall is made up from the nursing home spouse’s income.

Example: Joe and Sally Smith have a joint income of $2,600 a month, $1,900 of which is in Mr. Smith’s name and $700 is in Ms. Smith’s name. Mr. Smith enters a nursing home and applies for Medicaid. The Medicaid agency determines that Ms. Smith’s MMMNA is $2,200 (based on her housing costs). Since Ms. Smith’s own income is only $700 a month, the Medicaid agency allocates $1,500 of Mr. Smith’s income to her support. Since Mr. Smith also may keep a $60-a-month personal needs allowance, his obligation to pay the nursing home is only $340 a month ($1,900 – $1,500 – $60 = $340).

In exceptional circumstances, community spouses may seek an increase in their MMMNAs either by appealing to the state Medicaid agency or by obtaining a court order of spousal support.  To find out about these options, reach out to the MSW team: contact Amy Stratton or Kristen Prull Moonan.

 

 

It’s Medicare Open Enrollment Time: Is Your Plan Still Working for You?

Every year Medicare gives beneficiaries a window of opportunity to shop around and determine if their current Medicare plan is still the best one for them. During Medicare’s Open Enrollment Period, which runs from October 15 to December 7, beneficiaries can freely enroll in or switch plans.

During this period, you may enroll in a Medicare Part D (prescription drug) plan or, if you currently have a plan, you may change plans. In addition, during the seven-week period you can return to traditional Medicare (Parts A and B) from a Medicare Advantage (Part C, managed care) plan, enroll in a Medicare Advantage plan, or change Advantage plans.

Beneficiaries can go to www.medicare.gov or call 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227) to make changes in their Medicare prescription drug and health plan coverage.

According to the New York Times, few Medicare beneficiaries take advantage of Open Enrollment, but of those who do, nearly half cut their premiums by at least 5 percent. Even beneficiaries who have been satisfied with their plans in 2021 should review their choices for 2022, as both premiums and plan coverage can fluctuate from year to year. For example:

  • Are the doctors you use still part of your Medicare Advantage plan’s provider network?
  • Have any of the prescriptions you take been dropped from your prescription plan’s list of covered drugs (the “formulary”)?
  • What are your total out-of-pocket costs?
  • Could you save money with the same coverage by switching to a different plan?

For answers to questions like these, carefully look over the plan’s “Annual Notice of Change” letter to you. Prescription drug plans can change their premiums, deductibles, the list of drugs they cover, and their plan rules for covered drugs, exceptions, and appeals. Medicare Advantage plans can change their benefit packages, as well as their provider networks.

Remember that fraud perpetrators will inevitably use the Open Enrollment Period to try to gain access to individuals’ personal financial information. Medicare beneficiaries should never give their personal information out to anyone making unsolicited phone calls selling Medicare-related products or services or showing up on their doorstep uninvited. If you think you’ve been a victim of fraud or identity theft, contact Medicare.

Here are more resources for navigating the Open Enrollment Period:

Can a Marriage Be Annulled After One Spouse’s Death?

Marriage is supposed to be “until death do us part,” but after one spouse dies, is it possible for a court to declare a marriage invalid (annulled)? It can be happen, as a Nebraska widower recently learned, but only in certain circumstances.

Marriage provides benefits to a surviving spouse. When one spouse dies, the surviving spouse is entitled to receive an elective share of the deceased spouse’s estate. The amount of the share depends on state law, but it is usually around 30 percent. A spouse can claim an elective share even if there is a will that leaves the spouse fewer assets. This can lead to conflict between surviving spouses and other heirs.

If a spouse gets married shortly before he or she dies, questions can arise as to the legitimacy of the marriage. Heirs may attempt to invalidate the marriage to prevent the surviving spouse from recovering from the estate. The heirs can challenge a marriage after one spouse has died only if the marriage is considered “void.” A marriage is void if it wasn’t legally entered into in the first place. Examples of void marriages include cases in which:

  • One or both spouses were legally married to someone else at the time of the marriage
  • The spouses are too closely related to each other
  • One or both of the spouses were under the legal age for marriage
  • One or both spouses were mentally incompetent at the time of the marriage

A recent Nebraska case provides an instance of a marriage that was considered void due to incompetence (Malousek v. Meyer, Neb., No. S-20-470, July 30, 2021). Molly Stacey and Steven Greg Meyer began living together in 2009. In 2015, Ms. Stacey was diagnosed with cancer, which eventually spread and her condition deteriorated. Even though she had declared she never planned to marry Mr. Meyer, a few weeks before she died, they were wed. She also named him a joint owner on two bank accounts, changed the beneficiary designations on her other accounts to name Mr. Meyer and his son, and executed quitclaim deeds on her houses to leave them to Mr. Meyer on her death. At the time she was isolated from her children and incoherent.

After Ms. Stacey died without a will, her children went to court, seeking to have the marriage annulled and the property transactions declared void. The children argued that Mr. Meyer unduly influenced Ms. Stacey and that she lacked the mental capacity to make the transactions due to her illness. The Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that the marriage was void because Ms. Stacey was not mentally competent to enter into it. The court set aside the marriage and the financial transactions.

While void marriages can be set aside after one spouse dies, “voidable” marriages cannot. A voidable marriage is a marriage that can be annulled by one party if both spouses are still alive. Courts will generally not cancel these types of marriages after one spouse dies. Examples of voidable marriages, include cases in which:

  • One or both spouses were under mental duress
  • One spouse misrepresented him or herself
  • One spouse was forced into the marriage
  • The spouses were intoxicated at the time
  • One spouse lied about his or her circumstances

To learn more, reach out to the MSW team: contact Amy Stratton or Kristen Prull Moonan.

How Do I File for a Guardianship?

No one wants to see a loved one become unable to make decisions for him or herself. If this happens, however, the court may appoint a substitute decision maker, often called a “guardian,” but in some states called a “conservator” or other term. A guardian is only appointed as a last resort if other, less restrictive, alternatives, such as a power of attorney, are not in place or are not working.

In most states, anyone interested in the well-being of an individual who may be incapacitated – called the “proposed ward” — can request a guardianship for that person (also called a “conservatorship” in some states). An attorney is usually retained to file a petition for a hearing in the probate court in the proposed ward’s county of residence. Protections for the proposed ward vary greatly from state to state, with some simply requiring that notice of the proceeding be provided and others requiring the proposed ward’s presence at the hearing. The proposed ward is usually entitled to legal representation at the hearing, and the court will appoint an attorney if the allegedly incapacitated person cannot afford a lawyer.

At the hearing, the court attempts to determine if the proposed ward is incapacitated and, if so, to what extent the individual requires assistance. If the court determines that the proposed ward is indeed incapacitated, the court then decides if the person seeking the role of guardian will be a responsible guardian.

A guardian can be any competent adult — the ward’s spouse, another family member, a friend, a neighbor, or a professional guardian (an unrelated person who has received special training). An individual may nominate in advance the person they would like to serve as their guardian by executing a durable power of attorney while they are still competent to do so.

The guardian need not be a person at all — it can be a non-profit agency or a public or private corporation. If a person is found to be incapacitated and a suitable guardian cannot be identified, courts in many states can appoint a public guardian, which is a publicly financed agency that serves this purpose.

In naming someone to serve as a guardian, courts give first consideration to those who play a significant role in the ward’s life — people who are both aware of and sensitive to the ward’s needs and preferences. If two individuals wish to share guardianship duties, courts can name co-guardians.

Reach out to the MSW team: contact Amy Stratton or Kristen Prull Moonan.