Elder Law

Serving Southwest Florida

Helping clients plan for their family's future, by creating an efficient, thoughtful and comprehensive estate plan that preserves their legacy and gives them peace of mind.

Death of a Spouse

Mourning the death of a spouse can be one of the hardest experiences one can face. The emotional aspects of grief can also be difficult enough without having to concern yourself whether you’re financially unprepared.

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “Financial planning considerations after the loss of a spouse” says that at the death of a spouse, there can be many impacts to the financial picture. These can include changes in income, estate planning and dealing with IRA and insurance distributions. The first step, however, is understanding and quantifying the financial changes that may happen when your spouse dies.

Income Changes – Social Security. A drop in income is frequently an unforeseen reality for many surviving spouses at the death of a spouse, especially those who are on Social Security benefits. For retirees without dependents that have reached full retirement age, the surviving spouse will typically get the greater of their social security or their deceased spouse’s benefits – but not both. For example, let’s assume Dirk and Melinda are receiving $2,000 and $1,500 per month in Social Security benefits, respectively. In the event Dirk dies, Melinda will no longer receive her benefit and will only receive Dirk’s $2,000 benefit. That is a 42% reduction in total social security income received.

Social Security benefits typically start at 62, but a widow’s benefit can be available at age 60 for the survivor or at 50 if the survivor is disabled within seven years of the spouse’s death. Moreover, unmarried children under 18 (up to age 19 if attending elementary or secondary school full time) of a worker who passes away may also be eligible to get Social Security survivor benefits.

Income Changes – Pension Benefits. This is another type of income that may be decreased because of the death of a spouse. Those eligible to receive a pension often choose little or no survivorship benefits, which results in a sudden drop in income. Therefore, a single life annuity pension payment will end at the worker’s death leaving the survivor with no additional benefits. However, a 50% survivor option will pay 50% of the worker’s benefit to the surviving spouse at their death. A surviving spouse needs to understand what, if any pension benefits will continue and the financial effect of these changes.

Spousal IRA Benefits. Spouses must understand their options for inherited retirement accounts at the death of a spouse. A spousal beneficiary can roll the funds to their own IRA account, which lets the spousal beneficiary delay Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) until age 72. In this case, the spousal beneficiary’s life expectancy is used to calculate future RMDs. This may be appropriate for those over 59½, but spousal beneficiaries under that age that require retirement account distributions may subject themselves to early withdrawal penalties, including a tax and a 10% early withdrawal penalty, even on inherited funds. Spouses younger than 59½ may consider rolling the account to a beneficial or inherited IRA for more flexibility. In this case, RMDs will be taken annually based upon the life expectancy of the beneficiary, with distributions avoiding the 10% penalty. Distributions greater than the RMD may also be taken, while still avoiding early withdrawal penalties. Inherited IRAs can be a great tool for spousal beneficiaries who need income now to help support their lifestyle but have not reached 59½.

Updating the Estate Plan of the Surviving Spouse. It is easy to forget to review your estate plan drafted before the death of your spouse. Check on this with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Updating Financial Planning Projections. You don’t want to make any major decisions after the death of a spouse, you can still review the numbers. Create a new financial plan to help provide clarity.

Reference: nj.com (Jan. 9, 2021) “Financial planning considerations after the loss of a spouse”

Durable Powers of Attorney

The situation facing one family is all too common. An aunt is now incapacitated with severe Alzheimer’s disease. Her brother has been her agent with a durable power of attorney in place for many years. In the course of preparing his own estate plan, he decided it’s time for one of his own children to take on the responsibility for his sister, in addition to naming his son as executor of his estate. The aunt has no spouse or children of her own.

The answers, as explained in a recent article “Changing the agent under a durable power of attorney” from My San Antonio Life, all hinge on the language used in the aunt’s current durable power of attorney. If she used a form from the internet, the document is probably not going to make the transfer of agency easy. If she worked with an experienced estate planning attorney, chances are better the document includes language that addresses this common situation.

If the durable power of attorney included naming successor agents, then an attorney can prepare a resignation document that is attached to the durable power of attorney. The power of attorney document might read like this: “I appoint my brother Charles as agent. If Charles dies or is incapacitated or resigns, I hereby appoint my nephew, Phillip, to serve as a successor agent.”

If the aunt would make her wishes clear in the actual signed durable power of attorney, the nephew could relatively easily assume authority, when the father resigns the responsibility because the aunt pre-selected him for the role.

If there is a clause that appointed a successor agent, but the successor agent was not the nephew, the nephew does not become the agent and the aunt’s brother can’t transfer the POA. If there is no clause at all, the nephew and the father can’t make any changes.

In September 2017, there was a change to the law that required durable power of attorney documents to specifically grant such power to delegate the role to someone else. The law varies from state to state, so a local estate planning attorney needs to be asked about this issue.

If there is no provision allowing an agent to name a successor agent, the nephew and father cannot make the change.

Another avenue to consider: did the aunt’s estate planning attorney include a provision that allows the durable power of attorney to establish a living trust to benefit the aunt and to transfer assets into the trust? Part of creating a trust is determining who will serve as a trustee, or manager, of the trust. If such a clause exists in the durable power of attorney and the father uses it to establish and fund a trust, he can then name his son, the nephew, as the trustee.

Taking this step would place all of the aunt’s assets under the nephew’s control. He would still not be the aunt’s agent under her power of attorney. Responsibility for certain tasks, like filing the aunt’s income taxes, will still be the responsibility of the durable power of attorney.

If her durable power of attorney does not include establishing a living trust, the most likely course is the father will need to resign as agent and the nephew will need to file in court to become the aunt’s guardian. This is a time-consuming and slow-paced process, where the court will become heavily involved with supervision and regular reporting. It is the worst possible option, but it may also be the only option.

If your family is facing this type of situation, begin by speaking with an experienced estate planning attorney to find out what options exist in your state, and it might be resolved.

Reference: My San Antonio Life (Jan. 25, 2021) “Changing the agent under a durable power of attorney”

Transferring Your House

Transferring your house to your children while you’re alive may avoid probate. However, gifting a home also can mean a rather large and unnecessary tax bill. It also may place your house at risk, if your children get sued or file for bankruptcy.

You also could be making a mistake, if you hope it will help keep the house from being consumed by nursing home bills.

There are better ways to transfer a house to your children, as well as a little-known potential fix that may help even if the giver has since died, says Considerable’s recent article entitled “Should you transfer your house to your adult kids?”

If a parent signs a quitclaim deed to transfer the house to her son and then dies, it can potentially mean a tax bill of thousands of dollars for the son.

Families who see this error in time can undo the damage, by gifting the house back to the parent.

People will also transfer a home to try to qualify for Medicaid, but any gifts or transfers made within five years of applying for Medicaid can result in a penalty period when seniors are disqualified from receiving benefits.

In addition, transferring your home to another person can jeopardize your Florida homestead exemption.

Section 2036 of the Internal Revenue Code says that if the parent were to retain a “life interest” in the property, which includes the right to continue living there, the home would remain in her estate rather than be considered a completed gift. However, there are rules for what constitutes a life interest, including the power to determine what happens to the property and liability for its bills.

There are other ways to avoid probate. Florida permits “enhanced life estate” deeds that let homeowners transfer their house at death without probate.

Another option is transferring your house to a living trust, which can ensure that all assets avoid probate.

Many states also have simplified probate procedures for smaller estates.

We can help you with your estate planning.

Reference: Considerable (Sep. 18) “Should you transfer your house to your adult kids?”

 

When Parents Move In

When parents move into someone else’s household, 14% of the homeowners were the parent of the head of household in 2017. That number is an increase from 7% in 1995, according to the Pew Research Center.

“While the rise in shared living during and immediately after the recession was attributed in large part to a growing number of millennials moving back in with their parents, the longer-term increase has been partially driven by a different phenomenon: parents moving in with their adult children,” according to the Pew report.

US News and World Report’s recent article entitled “When Your Elderly Parents Move In With You” says that if your children also return home after college, you might wind up supporting your children and your parents at the same time.

The critical thing to do is to make a plan. Discuss your goals, the finances and the possibilities, which includes in-home care or nursing home care. Let’s look at how to care for aging parents in your home.

Get Financially Prepared. When parents move in, it will add new costs to your budget. In addition to health care for aging parents, the most disruptive implications are often the financial cost of supporting another dependent and having the space to accommodate them in the household. Talk about whether your parent will be contributing Social Security income or other retirement assets toward household expenses.

Think About Hiring Extra Help. Caring for a parent with significant health problems who needs help with basic living tasks can quickly become overwhelming for an adult child with children and work responsibilities. An aging parent might need around-the-clock care. A home health aide could be brought in during work hours or there’s also adult day health care services. However, these costs can add up. It’s not uncommon for the child who is caring for a parent to scale back his or her own career to accomplish both tasks.

Plan Before They Move In. Begin the discussion about the transition as early as you can. It can be doubly stressful to be executing a move in the middle of a crisis or urgent situation, like a health emergency or the death of a parent.

Remember that when parents move in, it often means you may need to schedule their activities and medical appointments. This can take time away from normal family routines.

Let us help you plan your estate.

Reference: US News and World Report (Aug. 30, 2020) “When Your Elderly Parents Move In With You”

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Estate Planning After Retirement

How you handle money and legal matters during retirement is more important than during your working years. It’s harder to bounce back from financial setbacks when you aren’t getting a regular paycheck. Managing finances and legal affairs to keep your savings intact and keeping your estate planning after retirement current is part of your new responsibility as a retiree, says a recent article “7 Money Moves You Should Make After Retiring” from MoneyTalksNews.

  1. Review estate planning documents. One of the most important documents is your will, but you also need to review any power of attorney and trust documents. A will is used to specify what you want done with your property after you die. What happens if you die without a will? The state will step in and make those decisions for you.

If you marry, divorce, inherit or buy property, you should update your will to reflect your changed circumstances. The arrival of a new grandchild may make you want to change your beneficiaries.

Reviewing your estate planning after retirement and then periodically afterwards can put your mind at ease. If you don’t have a will or trust, now is the time to have one created with an experienced estate planning attorney. You may also need a living will, power of attorney and letter of intent.

  1. Review named beneficiaries. Beneficiary designations require updating anytime there is a change in your life.  They play a large role in your estate planning after retirement. When you purchase life insurance, enroll in a pension plan or open an individual retirement account, you are often asked to name a beneficiary–the person who will inherit the proceeds when you die. These instructions take precedence over instructions in a will.
  2. Prepare for your funeral. No one wants to consider their own mortality, but helping your loved ones be financially prepared for your funeral is a gift. By planning your own funeral, including making arrangements for funds to be available to pay for it, you save your family of the burden of having to plan and pay for a funeral while they are grieving your loss. Planning in advance also gives you an opportunity to decide what type of funeral you want.
  3. Consider trimming transportation costs. If your household has two cars, but you could manage with one, consider paring down this expense. Seniors tend to pay higher rates than young people, so this is one way to trim your monthly expenses.
  4. Review emergency fund status. Having money set aside for unexpected expenses is more important now than when you were working. An emergency fund can help you avoid taking money out of retirement accounts, which costs you not only the funds themselves, but the potential growth of the funds and any taxes that might be due on withdrawals.
  5. Plan for Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) and taxes. Once you celebrate your 72nd birthday, you’ll need to start taking RMDs from tax-deferred retirement accounts. If you miss an RMD deadline or don’t take out enough, you may have to pay a 50% tax penalty on the amount of money you did not withdraw. RMDs are treated as taxable income, so they may impact your federal income tax rate, as well as the “combined income” formula used to determine the extent to which your Social Security benefits are taxable.
  6. Do you still need life insurance? If your family is not dependent upon your income, now might be the time to drop life insurance policies. The main purpose of life insurance is to provide an income stream for loved ones, if you should die unexpectedly when you are working and raising a family. However, if you are retired, your children are grown and your spouse is not relying on your income, it may be time to let the policies lapse. On the other hand, if you can afford the premiums and wish to leave the proceeds to a spouse or your children, by all means keep the policy. However, check the beneficiary designation.

Let us help you with your estate planning after retirement.

Reference: MoneyTalksNews (Oct. 9, 2020) “7 Money Moves You Should Make After Retiring”

 

Five Ways to Protect Your Estate

One of the prime goals of estate planning is to protect your estate.  It is true that a single person who dies in 2020 could have up to $11.58 million in personal assets and their heirs would not have to pay any federal estate tax. However, that doesn’t mean that regular people don’t need to worry about estate taxes—their heirs might have to pay state estate taxes, inheritance taxes or the estate may shrink because of other tax issues. That’s why U.S. News & World Report’s recent article “5 Estate Planning Tips to Keep Your Money in the Family” is worth reading.

Without proper planning, any number of factors could take a bite out of your children’s inheritance. They may be responsible for paying federal income taxes on retirement accounts, for instance. You want to be sure that a lifetime of hard work and savings doesn’t end up going to the wrong people.

The best way to protect your estate, your family and your legacy, is by meeting with an estate planning attorney and sorting through all of the complex issues of estate planning. Here are five areas you definitely need to address:

  1. Creating a last will and testament
  2. Checking that beneficiaries are correct
  3. Creating a trust
  4. Converting traditional IRA accounts to Roth accounts
  5. Giving assets while you are living

A last will and testament. Only 32% of Americans have a will, according to a survey that asked 2,400 Americans that question. Of those who don’t have a will, 30% says they don’t think they have enough assets to warrant having a will. However, not having a will means that your entire estate goes through probate, which could become very expensive for your heirs. Having no will also makes it more likely that your family will challenge the distribution of assets. As a result, someone you may have never met could inherit your money and your home. It happens more often than you can imagine.

Checking beneficiaries. Once you die, beneficiaries cannot be changed. That could mean an ex-spouse gets the proceeds of your life insurance policy, retirement funds or any other account that has a named beneficiary. Over time, relationships change—make sure to check the beneficiaries named on any of your documents to ensure that your wishes are fulfilled. Your will does not control this distribution and is superseded by the named beneficiaries.

Set up a trust. Trusts are used to accomplish different goals. If a child is unable to manage money, for instance, a trust can be created, a trustee named and the account funded. The trust will include specific directions as to when the child receives funds or if any benchmarks need to be met, like completing college or staying sober. With an irrevocable trust, the money is taken out of your estate and cannot be subject to estate taxes. Money in a trust does not pass through probate, which is another benefit of protecting your estate.

Convert traditional IRAs to Roth retirement accounts. When children inherit traditional IRAs, they come with many restrictions and heirs get the income tax liability of the IRA. Regular income tax must be paid on all distributions, and the account has to be emptied within ten years of the owner’s death, with limited exceptions. If the account balance is large, it could be consumed by taxes. By gradually converting traditional retirement accounts to Roth accounts, you pay the taxes as the accounts are converted. You want to do this in a controlled fashion, so as not to burden yourself. However, this means your heirs receive the accounts tax-free.

Gift with warm hands, wisely. Perhaps the best way to ensure that money stays in the family, is to give it to heirs while you are living. As of 2020, you may gift up to $15,000 per person, per year in gifts. The money is tax free for recipients. Just be careful when gifting assets that appreciate in value, like stocks or a house. When appreciating assets are inherited, the heirs receive a step-up in basis, meaning that the taxable amount of the assets are adjusted upon death, so some assets should only be passed down after you pass.

Let us help your protect your estate.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (Sep. 30, 2020) “5 Estate Planning Tips to Keep Your Money in the Family”

Letter of Instruction in Estate Planning

A letter of instruction, or LOI, is a good addition to the documents included in your estate plan. It’s commonly used to express advice, wishes and practical information to help the people who will be taking care of your affairs, if you become incapacitated or die. According to this recent article “Letter of instruction in elder law estate plan can help with managing important information” from the Times Herald-Record, there are many different ways a Letter of Instruction can help.

In our digital world, you might want to use your Letter of Instruction to record website names, usernames and passwords for social media accounts, online accounts and other digital assets. This helps loved ones who you want to have access to your online life.

If you have minor children who are beneficiaries, the Letter of Instruction is a good way to share your priorities to the trustee on your wishes for the funds left for their care. It is common to leave money in trust for “Health, Education, Maintenance and Support.” However, you may want to be more specific, both about how money is to be spent and to share your thoughts about the path you’d like their lives to take in your absence.

Art collectors or anyone who owns valuable items, like musical instruments, antiques or collectibles may use the Letter of Instruction as an inventory that will be greatly appreciated by your executor. By providing a carefully created list of the items and any details, you’ll increase the likelihood that the collections will be considered by a potential purchaser. This would also be a good place to include any resources about the collections that you know of, but your heirs may not, like appraisers.

Animal lovers can use a Letter of  Instruction to share personalities, likes, dislikes and behavioral quirks of beloved pets, so their new caregivers will be better prepared. In most states, a pet trust can be created to name a caregiver and a trustee for funds that are designated for the pet’s care. The caregiver and the trustee may be the same person, or they may be two different individuals.

For families who have a special needs member, a Letter of Instruction is a useful means of sharing important information about the person . It works in tandem with a Special Needs Trust, which is created to leave assets to a person who receives government benefits without putting means-tested benefits in jeopardy. If there is no Special Needs Trust and the person receives an inheritance, they could lose access to their benefits.

Some of the information in a Letter of Instruction includes information on the nature of the disability, daily routines, medications, fears, preferred activities and anything that would help a caregiver provide better care, if the primary caregiver dies.

The Letter of Instruction can also be used to provide basic information, like where important documents are kept, who should be notified in case of death or incapacity, which bills should be paid, what home maintenance tasks need to be taken care of and who provides the services, etc. It is a useful document to help those you leave behind to adjust to their new responsibilities and care for loved ones.  It is not a legal document, per se, and may not be enforceable, but a Letter of Instruction is a valuable method to express your preferences.

Reference: Times Herald-Record (Sep. 8, 2020) “Letter of instruction in elder law estate plan can help with managing important information”