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  • Archive for June, 2011

    Veteran Journalist Shares Her Personal Experiences Entering the Medicare System

    Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

    Trudy Lieberman has had plenty of experience with Medicare—of course up until now most of it was from the outside looking in. As a journalist for more than 40 years specializing in insurance, health care, health care financing and long-term care, one would think that when the time came this year for her to enter the Medicare system herself she’d be an old pro. Unfortunately, as Ms. Lieberman discovered—and shared with the readers of her exceptional five part article series in Time Magazine’s Moneyland—entering the Medicare system as a patient can be confusing for even the most knowledgeable of inside reporters.

    While her experience as a reporter may not have made signing up for Medicare any easier for Ms. Lieberman, her willingness to share her entrance into Medicare with readers may make the process easier for the rest of us. Here are just a few of the issues Lieberman has written about thus far:

    Sorting through Medicare information and choosing a plan: “Brochures and ‘lead cards’ for Medicare Advantage plans and Medigap policies began flooding my mailbox in January. This stuff can be a real burden, but some of it’s worthwhile – some even important – so you can’t just throw it all away…Hopefully, my sorting system (partly informed by decades of reporting on Medicare, partly by common sense) will make the task easier for you.

    Choosing a Medigap Plan to fill in the gaps of Medicare coverage: “It quickly became clear that the push to give consumers more choices and more information has actually made the job of picking a Medigap plan much harder. I ended up having to check out multiple websites, brochures, handouts and make several toll-free calls for assistance.”

    Finding a plan to cover the cost of prescription drugs: “I decided to ask my pharmacy about the retail cost of the drugs I currently take. I’ve always had great drug coverage, so it was shocking to learn that my prescriptions would cost $3,131 a year if I had to pay out-of-pocket. (Of course, from interviewing seniors over the years, I know some folks actually pay four or five times that amount.)”

    Part five comes out next week, and we look forward to reading the conclusion of this helpful series. We know how confusing and time consuming dealing with Medicare can be, so it’s helpful to know that many elder law attorneys specialize in helping seniors with this very process—we can help you too.

    Frequently Asked Questions About Probate

    Monday, June 27th, 2011

    What is probate?

    Probate is defined as “the legal process of administering the estate of a deceased person by resolving all claims and distributing the deceased person’s property under the valid will. A probate interprets the instructions of the deceased, decides the executor as the personal representative of the estate, and adjudicates the interests of heirs and other parties who may have claims against the estate.”

    The definition doesn’t sound too bad, but probate can be a very trying process. Even in the best of circumstances there are procedures that must be followed to the letter, and the actual process (depending on the size of the estate and the laws of the state in which the property is being probated) can take anywhere from 6 months to a few years.

    Do I need a lawyer to help probate an estate?

    As a rule it is not necessary to have a lawyer help you probate an estate. However, if you have been named as executor, probate can often become an overwhelming maze of deadlines, notifications and potential liabilities. This is why many executors do choose to hire a probate lawyer to help them through the process.

    You may want to think about hiring an attorney if you are serving as an executor under any of the following circumstances:

    • There are a number of beneficiaries who are not on friendly terms, or are receiving varying sizes of inheritance.
    • The decedent had large estate with many different assets, especially if the assets are not commonly held.
    • The decedent was a resident in a different state than your own home state.
    • A large number of creditors are making claims on the estate.
    • There is a disagreement about the will, or if more than one will was found.
    • The will is challenged or contested.

    Do Life Insurance or Retirement Benefits Have to Go Through Probate?

    The answer to the question above is generally “no”; life insurance and retirement benefits do not have to go through probate if the account has a named beneficiary. Benefits from life insurance accounts can be paid directly to the named beneficiary, and money from IRAs, Keoghs, and 401(k) accounts transfer automatically to the named beneficiaries of those accounts as well. The persons named as beneficiary, however, will most likely want to consult with a financial advisor to determine what needs to be done with the proceeds from these accounts. Another type of account that may not be subject to probate is a pay on death (or POD) account, the money from which can pass directly to the named beneficiary upon the death of the owner.

    Probate is a subject most people don’t want to spend much time considering, not only because the rules and requirements can be convoluted and confusing, but also because of the close association between probate and death. If you have any questions at all about the probate process please don’t hesitate to contact our office—or your own local attorney who specializes in probate—for more information.

    New Tax Breaks Could Have Huge Benefits for Grandchildren

    Friday, June 24th, 2011

    Last year was a fairly big year for tax news; with the repeal of the estate tax, the increase in the GST tax exemption, changes to 401(k) and IRA rules, and eventually the agreement on the new estate tax laws, we never wanted for something to write about. But one of the biggest stories may be just hitting the news now. A recent article in the Washington Post reveals that with the right planning, your grandchildren may now have “the ability to receive a tax-free inheritance of $400 million or more.” This isn’t just big news, “this is by far the biggest estate-planning break on record… a tax break you could drive 10 Mack trucks through.”

    With so much political huffing and puffing over the state of taxes one might well wonder how a tax break this big could come about. Washington Post writer Karen Hube explains: “This massive estate-tax break was created last year in two steps. First Congress lifted a $100,000 income restriction on who can convert a 401(k) or IRA to a Roth IRA, allowing even the wealthiest investors to convert. Then late in the year, it raised the generation-skipping transfer tax exemption (GST) to $5 million until 2013…Both of these provisions on their own create possibilities for significant tax savings. But used in combination, the results are exponentially greater.”

    Of course, taking advantage of this opportunity may not be as easy as it is laid out in the article. With so much at stake, interested investors will definitely want to consult with their estate planners and financial advisors before jumping into anything. But an opportunity like this one won’t come along every year, and this particular opportunity won’t last forever—the $5 million GST tax exemption will only last until 2013. If you think this tax break may benefit your family don’t wait, contact your financial advisor immediately.

    Make Financial Decisions a Family Activity

    Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

    When it comes to chores many families are not so different from businesses, with members tending to “specialize” in something they enjoy or are good at. Certain chores will often become the domain of one family member or another, lessening the daily burden all around. This may work well for tasks such as cooking, doing the laundry, mowing the lawn, etc.; but when it comes to finances this “specialization” can create long term problems.

    While it may be convenient for one partner to pay bills every month, if both partners aren’t aware of the family budget and month-to-month financial status there can be a tremendous disconnect in spending habits, leading to resentment and often a slow decline into debt. Even more frightening, disaster can strike quickly if the “accountant spouse” dies or becomes incapacitated. Quite often the surviving spouse has no idea what the family financial status is, or even where accounts or investments are located and how to access that money.

    The best solution is for couples to talk about their finances often, or take turns being the family CFO. You may even want to consider involving the kids in the family financial planning once they’re old enough. Having a regular allowance or earning pocket money for chores not only teaches kids about money management, but also helps them understand when they have to wait to get that new video game, or when the family may have to cut back on certain luxuries.

    Furthermore, children are natural problem solvers and activists, and including them in financial decisions such as which charities the family should support, or how to spend surplus cash can make them feel useful and important, as well as teaching them financial accountability.

    Many of us look upon our finances with dread; but it doesn’t have to be that way. Skill with money matters can bring us just as much pride and joy as skill with a paintbrush, tennis racquet, or any other skill that must be acquired with practice and hard work. With a little education, and the involvement of the entire family, we can all become the masters of our own financial futures.

    “Trouble” Helmsley Makes Headlines One Last Time

    Monday, June 20th, 2011

    The recent announcement of the death of “Trouble,” the famous canine heir of Leona Helmsley’s fortune, has made the issue of pet trusts once again headline news—something which is likely to bring positive results to pets all over the country. According to this article in MSN Today, “Pet estate planning has grown since Helmsley’s will made headlines [in 2007]. Today there are retirement homes for pets all across the country, and at least 45 states allow for pet trusts.”

    The growing awareness of pet trusts (or at least the need to make some arrangements for your pets in the event of your death) has benefitted not only pets of all shapes and sizes, but society in general. “A study from the late 1990s published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science found 1 percent of dogs and 1.5 percent of cats coming into 12 animal shelters had been surrendered because of owner death.”

    These days, because of the media’s close attention to the controversy surrounding the inheritance of “Trouble” Helmsley, not only do more pet owners make provisions for their pets in their wills or trusts, but more charitable bequests are mad to animal shelters and other animal care/protection agencies in general. Additionally, some veterinary schools have taken it upon themselves to provide for pets who have lost their owners: “A few veterinary schools offer estate planning options like lifetime care for pets and placement in a home. The Stevenson Companion Animal Life-Care Center, established by the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine, offers a place for pets to live in addition to veterinary care.”

    The truth is that making arrangements for your pet in the event of your death isn’t all that difficult to do. While “some owners leave money to whomever they’re entrusting their pet to as a way of making sure the animal does not become a financial burden;” this may not be necessary for ALL pet owners. Many owners simply write instructions for the care of their pets into their wills or trusts, somewhat similar to a nomination of guardians for minor children.

    As with most estate planning issues, there are many options available when it comes to the care of your pets. The important thing is not what you choose to do, but that you choose to do something to ensure that your pet won’t be left out in the cold if something happens to you.

    Estate Planning for Beginners Part 6: Funding

    Friday, June 17th, 2011

    The hard part is done. Your estate plan has been created, all the documents signed and witnessed and notarized. But wait, you’re not quite done yet—especially if your estate plan includes a trust. The task of funding that trust still remains. Without the completion of this crucial step all of your hard work could be for naught.

    Funding is the process of putting all of your property into the trust. Your trust is more than just a piece of paper, it works like a protective box, keeping its contents private and safe from probate; and funding is the process of filling that box. Without funding, your trust is just an empty box, and doesn’t provide much protection at all.

    The first question you may ask is “what should go into the box”? The easy answer is EVERYTHING. Start by asking your attorney to create a deed to help you put your home into your trust. For most people, their home is their greatest asset, and the first and most important to put into the protective box.

    The next step is to go to your bank and investment advisor and put your bank accounts and stocks or investments, and any other immediate assets into the name of your trust. To do this you will need your Certification of Trust, which is a short document proving the existence of your trust. Your attorney can provide you with copies of your Certification of Trust.

    The third step is to look at all of your tax-deferred assets such as retirement accounts, 401(k) accounts, or life insurance policies. These tax-deferred assets cannot be owned by the trust, but to ensure that the proceeds of these assets are distributed according to your wishes you will need to make your trust the primary beneficiary of the accounts or policies. By doing this you are arranging to funnel the proceeds of these assets into the protective box when the time comes. But keep in mind that not all tax-deferred assets are created equal—ask your advisor before placing these into the trust.

    Your last step is to execute a comprehensive transfer document, a simple document stating your desire to put all small or tangible property such as furniture, artwork, antiques, etc., into that protective box, and be considered trust property, rather than subject to probate.

    Of course every estate will be different; ask your attorney for a comprehensive list of assets to put into your trust. It is only once you’ve tucked all your assets away under the protection of your trust that you can finally breathe that final sigh of relief.

    Estate Planning for Beginners Part 5: Guardians of Minor Children

    Wednesday, June 15th, 2011

    Quite often, an individual or couple’s decision to finally create an estate plan is motivated by a strong need to ensure that their minor children will be protected and provided for. This kind of planning for young children often begins with choosing the person or couple who will care for and raise the children if the parents pass away. But what many parents find is that choosing people who will serve as guardians of their young children is not as easy as they first imagine. In fact, it can be the most difficult and most emotional part of creating an estate plan.

    For some families choosing guardians is easy—they simply pick a sibling or parent who is close to their children and who shares a similar parenting philosophy, but for other families the choice is not as clear. The following questions may be helpful ones to keep in mind when considering who may be in the best position to serve as guardian for your young children.

    1. Is the person someone your child already knows and feels comfortable with?
    2. Does the person live in the same state as you and your child, or will your guardian or child have to relocate?
    3. Does the person share a similar parenting philosophy with you?
    4. Is the person married? Does he or she have children already? Are they in a position to welcome another child into their lives?
    5. Does your potential guardian work or stay home? Would this change if they were to accept guardianship of your child?
    6. If family is important to you, would your guardian ensure that your child had opportunities to spend time with your extended family?
    7. Would this person serve as both guardian and trustee until your child came of age, or would you choose two people for these roles—one as guardian and one as trustee?

    These are just a few of the many questions you may want to keep in mind when considering a guardian for your child.

    In rare circumstances there may be a person you want to explicitly bar from ever gaining custody of your child—an abusive aunt or uncle, or a sibling with a dangerous addiction. In these cases it may be prudent to create an anti-nomination of guardians, a document in which you name the person or couple who should under no circumstances receive guardianship of your children.

    We know that these plans concerning the future and care of your children are possibly the most important you will ever make; and we know you’ll want to ensure you make them with the best information and most trusted guidance available. Please contact our office for more information, or to get started today.

    Estate Planning for Beginners Part 4: Healthcare Documents

    Monday, June 13th, 2011

    Thus far our “Estate Planning Basics” series has focused primarily on financial documents, but the documents pertaining to your health care are an equally important part of any estate plan.

    The most important healthcare document in your estate plan will be your healthcare directive. Depending on where you live, this document naming a healthcare agent and detailing your wishes for decisions made on your behalf and end of life treatment may also be called a living will, an advance healthcare directive, healthcare power of attorney, or a personal directive.

    Perhaps the most important part of a healthcare directive is the nomination of your healthcare agent. This is the person who will be making decisions (potentially life-and-death decisions) about your medical treatment in the event that you are unable. The person you choose should be trustworthy, sensitive to the concerns of your other loved ones, and have the strength to ensure that your wishes are followed—even if those wishes are difficult or unpopular.

    Like a financial power of attorney, the advance healthcare directive can be very general or very specific in its instructions. In addition to a nomination of agent, most healthcare directives also include (but are not limited to):

    • Instructions for life-saving treatment (or your desire for a DNR order)
    • Any existing medical conditions
    • Your preferences for alternative medical treatment, if any
    • The name of your primary care physician
    • Your instructions for the final disposition of your remains

    While some people have very specific preferences for medical treatment and end-of-life care, others prefer to leave these decisions in the hands of their loved ones, letting those who care about them make the choices that will bring the most comfort. Whether you choose to leave detailed instructions for care or leave the decision-making to others, your healthcare directive should reflect your choice. We all know the tale of Terry Schiavo, whose lack of a living will resulted in a seven year court battle between her husband and her parents over her end of life care… Don’t let the same thing happen to you or your family.

    Estate Planning for Beginners Part 3: Powers of Attorney

    Friday, June 10th, 2011

    Once you are secure in the knowledge that you’ve provided for your family and ensured that your wishes for the distribution of your hard-earned fortune are clear, it’s time to take steps to ensure that YOU will be protected and financially secure during your lifetime. It is not uncommon for seniors to need help with the finer details of their finances as they age, or in rarer circumstances for someone who is injured or incapacitated to require an agent to make financial decisions for them. A Power Of Attorney is the document that gives your chosen agent permission to make choices on your behalf, as well as giving instructions as to how those choices should be made.

    Here are some of the most important things you should know about your Power of Attorney:

    • A Power of Attorney is only effective during your lifetime; it gives your agent (or attorney-in-fact) the power to act for you while you are alive but unable to act for yourself.
    • A Power of Attorney can be created to go into effect immediately or only become effective when you become incapacitated. This latter Power of Attorney is called a Springing Power of Attorney because it “springs” into effect once it is proven that the predetermined conditions (generally incapacity of the principal) have been met.
    • A Power of Attorney can be revoked at any time so long as you have mental capacity.
    • A Power of Attorney is for financial and legal issues only, a medical agent or power of attorney is granted in a separate document (to be discussed in our next blog post.)

    Because your Power of Attorney grants your agent-in-fact such broad powers it is of the utmost importance to choose an agent who will not only be able to make wise decisions for you but who will also have your best interests at heart. While Power of Attorney does grant an agent very broad powers, there are ways to build a system of checks and balances into the document; some of these include requiring your agent to keep detailed records and present these records to the principal (you) or other named individuals, or using restrictive language in the document itself which sets limits on the agent’s power.

    Estate Planning for Beginners Part 2: Trusts

    Wednesday, June 8th, 2011

    We’ve said it before on our blog and we’ll say it again: It doesn’t matter whether you’re a billionaire business executive or a teacher with a modest salary, it doesn’t matter whether you’re the patriarch of a large family or a stay-at-home mom of a newborn, a revocable living trust may be exactly what your family needs to protect their assets and their best interests. This is because a trust is probably the most comprehensive and versatile tool in your estate plan, and is a key part of helping you accomplish your goals.

    There are two basic kinds of trusts—revocable and irrevocable. Revocable means that it is able to be revoked or changed so long as the grantor (the person who created the trust) is still living. Logically enough, an irrevocable trust cannot be changed once it has been signed. The reason this question of revocability is so important is because a trust is not merely a set of instructions for how your wealth should be distributed, a trust actually owns the property placed within it, with the person or people serving as trustee (usually for a revocable trust this is the grantors themselves, while they are living) controlling the trust property within. It is for this very reason that trusts can be such a powerful and flexible tool for tax planning and estate planning.

    The specifics of your trust will vary greatly depending on what you hope to accomplish. Parents of young children may wish to include a general trust for the benefit of all the children, with distributions made to the guardians as necessary. This general trust can be split into separate individual trusts when all of the children have reached a certain age or graduated from college. Parents (and often grandparents) may want to include education trusts under the umbrella of their revocable living trust. Many families feel it is important to include instructions for charitable giving in their estate plan, and may choose to set up a charitable trust with their children or grandchildren as trustees. Pet owners often create pet trusts to ensure that their animals will be well cared after the owner has died.

    A trust, much more than a simple will, allows the grantor far greater control over their assets—and for a longer period of time—which is why trusts are particularly useful for anybody entering into a second or third marriage, or for any parent who worries about the choices a beneficiary might make once they come into their inheritance. Unlike a simple will, trusts are designed to withstand the test of time, allowing you to leave a legacy that can last for decades.