Category : News

What to Do and Not Do with Your Estate Planning Documents

Creating and executing estate planning documents is just the first step. Once you have completed the documents, you need to know what to do with them.

All estate plans should include, at minimum, two important planning instruments: a durable power of attorney and a will. A trust can also be useful to avoid probate and to manage your estate both during your life and after you are gone. In addition, medical directives allow you to appoint someone to make medical decisions on your behalf. Once you have all these essential estate planning documents, you need to make sure they are stored properly and get to the right people.

Store the Documents Properly
Your estate planning documents should be stored in a safe, secure location that is accessible to your personal representative (also called an executor), the person you appoint to handle your estate’s affairs after your passing. Some law firms will store your original signed documents for you. If you want to keep them at home, you should use a water- and fire-proof safe or filing cabinet. Many people use a safe deposit box in a bank, but these can be hard for your representative to access. Often the documents giving your personal representative the right to access the safe deposit box are themselves in the box. If you do use a safe deposit box, you may want to have a joint owner on the account.

Spread the Word
It is critical that you tell your personal representative where the documents are located so that he or she can easily access them when needed. If the documents are locked away, your representative needs to know the combination or where the key is located.

You should also talk to other people who might be affected –such as your agent under a power of attorney or a health care proxy–about what you want if you are unable to communicate your wishes yourself. Doing this ahead of time will help them execute your wishes when the time comes. You may want to give family members copies of your documents. If an original document is lost, the court may accept a copy in some circumstances.

Avoid Confusion
Make sure you destroy any old estate planning documents that are no longer valid. Old documents can cause confusion among family members and could lead to litigation.

In addition, do not write on your current documents. If you want to make a change, contact your attorney to formally change the document. Handwritten additions are usually not valid and could raise questions about the document. To learn more, contact Amy Stratton or Kristen Prull Moonan.

Three Changes You May Want to Make to Your Estate Plan Now Due to the Pandemic

You may need to reevaluate some elements of your estate plan in light of the coronavirus pandemic. There are unique aspects of this crisis that your current estate planning documents may not be suited to handle.

The language in some estate planning documents that is fine under normal conditions may cause additional problems for you and your loved ones if you fall ill during the pandemic. Look over the following documents to see if they may need updating in order to fulfill your wishes:

  • Living will. A living will is a document that you can use to give instructions regarding treatment if you become terminally ill or are in a persistent vegetative state and unable to communicate your instructions. The living will states under what conditions life-sustaining treatment should be terminated. Many living wills contain a prohibition on intubation, which can be used to prolong life, even in a vegetative state. However, in the case of Covid-19, intubation and placement on a ventilator can actually save a patient’s life (although many patients who are intubated still die). If your living will contains a blanket prohibition on intubation, you may want to rethink that.
  • Durable Power of Attorney. A power of attorney (POA) allows you to appoint an agent to act in your place with regard to financial matters. A POA can be either current or springing. A current POA takes effect immediately, usually with the understanding that it will not be used until and unless you become incapacitated. A “springing” POA only takes affect when you become 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. In the current chaotic environment of the coronavirus pandemic, getting a letter from a doctor will be difficult, if not impossible. Requiring your agent under a power of attorney to seek out a doctor to get a certification of incapacity will only add to their tasks and delay their ability to act on your behalf.  Consider changing the POA so that it can take effect immediately if needed.
  • Health Care Proxy. A health care proxy allows you to appoint someone else to act as your agent for medical decisions. It will ensure that your medical treatment instructions are carried out. Without a health care proxy, your doctor may be required to provide you with medical treatment that you would have refused if you were able to do so. Usually, the person who is appointed to act as your agent would confer with the doctors in person. That will likely be impossible during the coronavirus pandemic because family members often are not allowed in the hospital with sick patients. You need to make sure your health care proxy contains a provision that expressly authorizes electronic communication with your agent.

Consult with your attorney to make sure these documents and your other estate planning documents express your wishes during this time.  To learn more, contact Amy Stratton or Kristen Prull Moonan.

How Your Stimulus Check Affects Medicaid Eligibility

The coronavirus relief bill includes a direct payment to most Americans, but this has Medicaid recipients wondering how the payment will affect them. Because the payment is not income, it should not count against a Medicaid recipient’s eligibility.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act provides a one-time direct payment of $1,200 to individuals earning less than $75,000 per year ($150,000 for couples who file jointly), including Social Security beneficiaries. Individuals earning up to $99,000 ($198,000 for joint filers) will receive smaller stimulus checks. Payments are based on either 2018 or 2019 tax returns.

The basic Medicaid rule for nursing home residents is that they must pay all of their income, minus certain deductions, to the nursing home. If the stimulus payment were considered income, it would likely have to go straight to the nursing home. Since in most states Medicaid recipients cannot have more than $2,000 in assets, there was also concern that the stimulus payments could put many recipients over the asset limit.

In a blog post, the commissioner of the Social Security Administration (SSA) has clarified that the SSA will not consider stimulus payments as income for Supplemental Security Insurance (SSI) recipients, and the payments will be excluded from resources for 12 months. Because state Medicaid programs cannot impose eligibility requirements that are stricter than SSI requirements, the payments should not affect Medicaid eligibility.

To learn more, contact Amy Stratton or Kristen Prull Moonan.

 

Is It a Good Idea to Bring Your Parent Home from the Nursing Home During the Coronavirus Pandemic?

With the coronavirus pandemic hitting nursing homes and assisted living facilities especially hard, families are wondering whether they should bring their parents or other loved ones home. It is a tough decision with no easy answers.

The number of coronavirus cases in nursing homes and assisted living facilities across the country continues to grow. A Washington state nursing home was one of the first clusters of coronavirus reported in the United States, with at least 37 deaths associated with the facility.  NBC news reported on April 16 that coronavirus deaths in long-term care facilities across 29 states had soared to 5,670.  “In New Jersey,” NBC added, “the virus has spread to more than 95 percent of the state’s 375 long-term care facilities, according to state health officials.”

In an effort to contain the virus’s spread, most long-term care facilities are limiting or excluding outside visitors, making it hard to check on loved ones. Social activities within the facility may also be cancelled, leading to social isolation for residents. In addition, long-term care facilities face staffing shortages even in the best of times. With the virus affecting staff as well as residents, facilities are having trouble providing needed care. Assisted living facilities, which are not heavily regulated, may have greater trouble containing the virus than nursing homes because their staff is not necessarily medically trained.

With this in mind, many families are considering bringing their loved ones home. A Harvard epidemiologist is warning that nursing homes are not the best place to house the vulnerable elderly at this time. And a local judge in Dallas has recommended that families remove their loved ones from infected facilities. Before taking this extreme step, however, you need to consider the following questions:

  • Is your family able to provide the care that your loved one needs? Some patients require help with eating, dressing, medication, and going to the bathroom. You need to consider whether you can adequately provide that care at home. In addition to your loved one’s practical needs, you need to think about your physical and emotional stamina. Also, is your house set up to safely accommodate your family member? Are there a lot of stairs? Does the bathroom have rails? If your loved one has dementia, there may be other considerations to take into account.
  • How well can you prevent infection? Will you be better able to prevent infection than a nursing home? If your entire household is homebound, you may be in a good position to prevent bringing home the virus. However, if one or more members of your household is working outside of the home, you will have to take extra precautions to make sure you don’t bring the virus to your loved one. Are you taking the necessary precautions to keep your house and yourself disinfected?
  • Will the resident be allowed to return to the facility when the threat of the virus has abated? If you take your family member out of the nursing home or assisted living facility, the facility may not let your family member back in right away. You should check with the facility to determine if your loved one will be able to return.

Bringing a family member home is a hard decision and it depends on the individual circumstances of each family. For more on the considerations involved, click here and here.

To learn more, contact Amy Stratton or Kristen Prull Moonan.

 

From PBN: “Pandemic has added much more complexity to Stratton’s role”.

Amy Stratton of the Providence law firm Moonan, Stratton & Waldman LLP guides clients through wills, probate and estate planning. With founding partner Irving Waldman practicing part time, the small firm is run by Stratton and Kristen Prull Moonan, offering clients legal services that are – by design – personal and meant to cover all bases.

“We are not only attorneys, we’ve become trusted advisers,” Stratton said recently. “We know their families, businesses, everything about them. We know much more than the traditional attorney. I can’t think of a better way to practice law. I’m very lucky.”

Now the COVID-19 pandemic has added much more complexity to Stratton’s role.

With the coronavirus risk, the focus of Stratton’s practice – which involves estate planning and business succession – is even more pressing.

See the full article in PBN here.

How to Assist Aging Parents During the Pandemic

If your parents are getting on in years, you may be helping them with their finances and other matters, such as medical visits and shopping. You may live close by and be able to visit weekly or more often. Or you may live far away and were visiting every few months before the coronavirus struck. Either way, due to COVID-19 you may not be able to visit right now, whether because flights are no longer available, you’re working more than full-time home-schooling your children, your parents’ residence has barred visitors, or you yourself are not safe because you have to continue to go out in the world. The last may especially be the case if you are a medical professional.

So, how can you continue to assist your parents from a distance? The answers depend on the types of help you have been providing, but here are a few options:

Finances

If you have been helping your parents pay bills and manage their finances and can no longer drop by to help them write out checks, your parents may be able to give you online access to their accounts. While, technically, the bank or financial institution may not permit anyone other than the account holder to have online access, if your parent provides you with their username and password, who’s the wiser? Extraordinary times can require out-of-the-ordinary solutions.

If your parent doesn’t already have online access to their accounts, you should be able to set this up through a conference call with your parent and the financial institution. With newer two-factor verification, the institution may send a text or email every time you log on to the account. If you’re setting up the online access with your parent, you should be able to use your cell phone for these texts. If not, you’ll have to coordinate with your parent or see if you can change the dual-verification contact information.

It might also make sense to have your parents’ mail forwarded to you for the time being, or work on having regular bills, such as for utilities, either sent to your address or turned into e-bills to make it easier for you to pay them on-line.

For the future, make sure you already have online access to your parents’ accounts, preferably doing so under the financial institution’s rules, whether being named as a joint owner, under a durable power of attorney, or as co-trustee of a revocable trust. We recommend this even in the absence of a pandemic and if your parents can still take care of their finances themselves right now. It allows you to step in seamlessly if and when necessary and it gives you the ability to see what’s going on with your parents’ accounts. While your parents may not want to be monitored, older Americans are prime targets of scams. Having this oversight ability can help you identify any unusual disbursal from your parents’ accounts and intervene as appropriate, while permitting your parents to continue to handle their own finances.

When things get back to normal, even though you have online access, you and your parent still may want to go back to your assisting them with writing checks. Not only will this give them back a sense of control and normalcy, it will give you a chance to visit with them and make sure they’re doing well.

Health Care

Virtual assistance with health care is more difficult than with finances. Doctors, their offices, and pharmacies may be barred by HIPAA restrictions from communicating with you. They are probably not set up to video conference with you when your parent visits for a check-up or medical or dental procedure. The one silver lining in this regard, is that in all likelihood all of your parents’ non-emergency medical visits have been cancelled for the duration of the pandemic.

Many medical providers now are expanding their ability to offer telehealth visits so they can meet with patients by video conference. It’s an open question whether these systems are equipped to offer small group meetings. While such sessions must be HIPAA compliant, your parents’ authorization to include you should do the trick.

In general, you will be able to communicate more easily with your parents’ medical providers if you have both a health care proxy and a HIPAA release. While the health care proxy is more comprehensive and gives you the power to make health care decisions for your parent, technically it’s only effective when a doctor has found your parent to be incapable of making their own medical decisions. It may be of little or no help in the current situation.

A HIPAA release can be effective any time, giving medical personnel the ability to communicate with you and giving you the power to access the medical records of homebound parents. In addition, while your parent can name only one agent at a time on a health care proxy, they can name any number of agents on a HIPAA release.

While it’s good to have both documents in place ahead of time and they are normally included in any estate planning package prepared by a law firm, downloadable forms are available and do not have to be notarized, though the health care proxy requires two witnesses.

You can take these steps now in this emergency and when it’s over, make sure you and your parents have everything in place for the next one (while still hoping there isn’t a next one).

To learn more, contact Amy Stratton or Kristen Prull Moonan.

 

Who Gets Copies of the Will After a Person Dies?

Many movies and television shows have a scene where a family gathers around a big table after a relative has died to listen to the reading of the will. While this makes for a dramatic scene, one that may have been more common when literacy rates were lower, it doesn’t usually happen this way in the modern world. There is no requirement that a will be read out loud to anyone. So what does happen with the will?

Once the will is located, it should be given to the estate’s attorney. Instead of reading the will out loud, the estate’s attorney sends copies of the will to anyone who may have an interest in it. Obviously, the person who is named as executor or personal representative is entitled to a copy of the will. He or she is in charge of applying for probate, managing the decedent’s property, and making sure the instructions in the will get carried out.

The estate attorney will also send a copy of the will to anyone who is named as a beneficiary. If any minor children or incapacitated individuals are named as beneficiaries, then their guardians should receive a copy of the will. In some states, anyone who would have inherited if there was no will is entitled to a copy of the will. Even if it isn’t required by law, if there is the possibility of a legal challenge to the will, the attorney may want to send a copy to any legal heirs, close family relatives, or previous beneficiaries who aren’t included in the will, so that they have notice. This will limit the time frame for them to file a will contest.

Another person who may be entitled to a copy of the will is the estate’s accountant, and if the estate is taxable, then the IRS may get a copy of the will as well. If the will funds a revocable trust, then the successor trustee of the trust is entitled to a copy of the will. Note that once a will is probated, it is available to the public and anyone can read it.

To learn more, contact Amy Stratton or Kristen Prull Moonan.

Staying Connected to Family Members in a Nursing Home When Visits are Banned

The spread of the coronavirus to nursing home residents has caused the federal government to direct nursing homes to restrict visitor access, and many assisted livingfacilities have done the same. While the move helps the residents stay healthy, it can also lead to social isolation and depression. Families are having to find new ways to stay in touch.

Nursing homes have been hit hard by the coronavirus. The Life Care Center of Kirkland, Washington near Seattle was one of the first clusters of coronavirus in the United States and is one of the deadliest, with at least 35 deaths associated with the facility. In response, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) issued guidance to all nursing homes, restricting all visitors, except for compassionate care in end-of-life situations; restricting all volunteers and nonessential personnel; and cancelling all group activities and communal dining. While these actions are necessary to prevent the spread of the virus, they can leave families worried and upset and residents feeling isolated and confused.

Families are taking varying tacks to keep in contact with their loved ones, many of whom don’t fully understand why their family is no longer visiting. Nursing homes are also helping to facilitate contact. Some options for keeping in touch, include the following:

  • Phone calls. Phone calls are still an option to be able to talk to your loved one.
  • Window visits. Families who are able to visit their loved one’s window can use that to have in-person visits. You can hold up signs and blow kisses. Talking on a cell phone or typing messages on it and holding them up to the window may be a way to have a conversation.
  • Facetime and Skype. Many nursing homes are facilitating video calls with families using platforms like Facetime or Skype. Some nursing homes have purchased additional iPads, while others have staff members going between rooms with a dedicated iPad to help residents make calls.
  • Cards and letters. Sending cards and letters to your loved ones is another way to show them that you are thinking of them. Some nursing homes have also set up Facebook pages, where people can send messages to residents.

In this unprecedented time, families will need to get creative to stay in touch with their loved ones. For more articles about how families and nursing homes around the country are coping with the new restrictions, click here, here, and here.

To learn more, contact Amy Stratton or Kristen Prull Moonan.

Social Security Shutters ‘Petri Dish’ Offices in Response to Coronavirus Outbreak

To protect its workers and the public during the coronavirus pandemic, the Social Security Administration (SSA) has suspended face-to-face service to at its field offices and hearings offices nationwide until further notice. Payments to the nearly 70 million Social Security beneficiaries will not be affected.

While in-person appointments will still be made for certain critical services (see below), the SSA is encouraging beneficiaries to transact as much business as possible online using the agency’s website. (If you don’t have an online account yet, click here.)

Certain services also will continue to be available via the agency’s toll-free line, (800) 772-1213 or from local offices’ General Inquiry lines. (For the local office locator, click here.)

Why the Closure?

Budget cuts to Social Security over the years have led to crowded offices and long wait times.  With the advent of the coronavirus outbreak, this went from being an inconvenience to a public health threat.  The union representing the SSA’s 61,000 workers was deeply concerned about the health of the agency’s workforce as well as the danger to the public.

“The offices are petri dishes,” Richard Couture, a spokesman for the union, told The New York Times.  “People are sitting there for a long time, magnifying and multiplying the risk of infection for everyone there, and to people on the outside.”

How to Get in Touch During the Shutdown

Examples of tasks or inquiries that can be accomplished online include:

  • Applying for retirement, disability, and Medicare benefits;
  • Checking the status of an application or appeal;
  • Requesting a replacement Social Security card (in most areas); or
  • Requesting a replacement Medicare card.

(For a complete list, click here.)

Phone services will also be available, although the SSA says it is “focusing on providing specific critical services to people in dire need.” Examples of how the SSA can help by phone include:

  • If you did not receive your monthly payment;
  • If you are currently homeless or at risk of becoming homeless; or
  • If your benefits were suspended and can now be reinstated.

Expect long wait times if calling, however.

In-Person Appointments

In-person help will still be available for a limited list of critical services, including:

  • Reinstatement of benefits in dire circumstances;
  • Assistance to people with severe disabilities, blindness or terminal illnesses; or
  • Help for those in urgent need of eligibility decisions for Supplemental Security Income or Medicaid eligibility related to work status.

If you require such services, you must call in advance; there are no walk-ins at the field offices.

What if you already had a standing appointment or disability hearing scheduled?  If this is the case, the SSA will call you to reschedule or to take care of the issue by phone. Unfortunately, this call may come from a private phone number rather than from a government phone because employees are working remotely and do not necessarily have government-issued phones. Identity theft phone scams where callers impersonate SSA workers were already on the rise, and this will likely only add to beneficiaries’ confusion. Be aware that agency employees will never inform you that your Social Security number has been suspended, demand payment, or seek credit card information.  (Scams taking advantage of the situation have already started.)

For full details on changes to SSA services brought on by the response to the coronavirus, go to the SSA’s Social Security & Coronavirus page, https://www.ssa.gov/coronavirus/

If you are enrolling in Medicare, you can get free counseling from your State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP).  To find your state program, click here.

To learn more, contact Amy Stratton or Kristen Prull Moonan.