A Will Reveals More About You Than Just Assets and Distribution

Current Events, Estate PlanningNo Comments

We tell our readers quite often that a will is one of the most important documents in your estate plan—an essential document, to be quite honest—but sometimes we like to remind our readers that wills are interesting family and historical documents as well.

Genealogists will often use an ancestor’s last will and testament to determine important details about family members: names and birthdates of siblings or children, extent of property, last known address, etc. Additionally, these are the documents in which we make our final wishes known. This is often where our true selves come out; who we liked best and what we valued most.

A last will and testament can be very revealing indeed. In honor of President’s Day we offer these interesting tidbits relating to the wills of the leaders of our nation:

  • George Washington was concerned with the future of our young nation to the very end, and gave some of his estate toward establishing the first American Institutions of higher education, an attempt to prevent young Americans from being “sent to foreign Countries for the purpose of Education, often before their minds were formed, or they had imbibed any adequate ideas of the happiness of their own; contracting, too frequently, not only habits of dissipation and extravagance, but principles unfriendly to Republican Government & to the true and genuine liberties of mankind.”
  • Interestingly, President Abraham Lincoln left no will—and he was a prominent lawyer who should have known better!
  • President Harry S. Truman included careful tax planning in his last will and testament.
  • President Warren G. Harding must have had some kind of premonition when he conveniently decided to write his will 6 weeks before his sudden death.
  • The will of President Calvin Coolidge was just 23 words long: “Not unmindful of my son John, I give all my estate, both real and personal, to my wife, Grace Coolidge, in fee simple.”
  • President John F. Kennedy was a bit poetical in his will, and included this haunting phrase, “being of sound and disposing mind and memory, and mindful of the uncertainty of life…”

Estate Tax Lessons from 2010 and Things to Watch Out for in 2011

Current Events, Estate PlanningNo Comments

We all know from the many news stories of last  year that estate tax laws are not set in stone, they can fluctuate and change both at the state and the federal level; and as this article in Forbes points out, keeping up with those fluctuations can be of the utmost importance to you and your loved ones.

The many celebrity news stories we saw last year provide all the examples we need of what can happen when you plan well (as was the case with Brittany Murphy’s estate plan) or when you neglect your estate plan—or even worse, when you fail to plan at all. Here are some celebrity examples of common estate planning pitfalls and mistakes:

Failing to update your estate plan. We tell all of our clients how important it is to review and update your estate plan every 2 to 5 years; Gary Coleman provides a prime example of what can happen if you neglect to follow through on those updates and reviews. “[Coleman] created a handwritten codicil to his will in 2007 leaving much of his estate to his wife, Shannon Price. After they divorced, however, Coleman never updated his will or created a new one. That led to a court fight after he died about whether Coleman was still married to Price. Even though they never officially tied the knot for a second time, Price claimed they had a ‘common-law marriage,’ which would mean that the handwritten will would be valid.”

Failing to fund your estate plan. A revocable living trust is a wonderful tool, but it’s just an empty vessel until you fund it by re-titling your assets in the name of your trust.  Michael Jackson created what is most likely a wonderful living trust, but his failure to fund it properly means that 2010 saw “The estate of Michael Jackson… dragged on with no end in sight.”

Waiting too long to create your plan. If you are a senior citizen, waiting too long to create your plan leaves you open to the exploitation or undue influence of acquaintances or family members who might try to take advantage of you.  Even if nothing of the sort has taken place, just the suspicion of undue influence can land your estate in a lengthy court battle. “Does the Anna Nicole Smith case come to mind? The United States Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that it will hear her case for the second time. Did she wrongly take advantage of her 90-year old husband, or did his son use fraud and other improper means to stop the billionaire from leaving money to Anna Nicole?”

We can all benefit from the very public airings of these celebrity estates.  Our office can help you avoid the mistakes listed here, plus many more.  The new laws of 2011 provide the perfect opportunity to create a plan (or update your existing plan), and ensure that your family will be well protected now, and in the future.

Minnesota Health Care Dispute Raises Fears for Everyone

Current Events, Estate Planning, Health CareNo Comments

As estate planning attorneys we help our clients plan ahead. We help them create the documents and take the legal action they need to protect themselves and those they love. We help them talk through painful possibilities, and support them as they make difficult decisions. We work to ensure that our clients and their families will be prepared for any eventuality—but deep down we hope that they will never really need to make use of some of these documents and plans.

One of the situations that estate planners (or any compassionate advisor) dreads is one that is happening right now in Minnesota. According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune the family and friends of 85 year old Al Barnes are struggling to make a difficult decision about his end-of-life care—a decision made no easier by the fact that not all family members (or Mr. Barnes doctors and health care providers) can agree on the next course of action.

“Numerous doctors have assessed Barnes in the past year, and agree on his prognosis. According to court records, Barnes suffers from a level of dementia so profound that doctors believe it is pointless to treat his kidney failure and respiratory failure.” But this isn’t the whole story. Al Barnes’ wife Lana Barnes believes that “her husband suffers from chronic Lyme disease, and that antibiotic treatment of the tick-borne bacterial infection would reverse his dementia — and necessitate treatment for his other conditions as well.”

Mr. Barnes does have a Health Care Directive which lists his wife Lana as his agent, but it apparently goes no further than that, giving no specific instructions or information about what his wishes for end-of-life care would be. And herein lies the dispute. “A Methodist Hospital doctor wants to take decisionmaking rights from [Mrs. Barnes] because he believes she is demanding hopeless and painful treatments. The 56-year-old wife is accusing the doctor and others of misdiagnosis that has left Barnes substantially — but not irreversibly — incapacitated.”

The Minneapolis Probate Courts temporarily took away Mrs. Barnes’ authority over her husband’s care earlier this month after the disagreements between wife and doctors came to a head. “Lana and doctors from Methodist Hospital [are] due to resume arguments over his medical care Wednesday in Hennepin County Probate Court… After Wednesday’s hearing, a judge will decide whether Lana Barnes remains in charge.”

This is exactly the kind of situation we hope to help our clients avoid by encouraging a little bit of forethought, conversations between family members and loved ones, and by preparing a thorough, decisive, and well-thought-out health care directive.

Non-Traditional Couples Face Estate Planning Challenges

Current Events, Estate PlanningNo Comments

The new estate tax laws (with their friendly bent toward the taxpayer) have been cause for celebration for many wealthy and affluent Americans, but there is at least one group which has not had cause to celebrate—gay and unmarried couples. Under current federal law, a married person could transfer an unlimited amount of their estate to their spouse upon death, free of taxes; but this generous marital deduction does not apply to same-sex couples—even if they live in one of the five U.S. states which recognize gay marriage.

A recent article in Reuters explains that “there is no [recognition of same-sex marriage] on a federal level, which means same-sex couples do not get the marital deductions on U.S. taxes. They also cannot make large gifts or pass on assets to each other without paying taxes.”

The new laws may help some same-sex or unmarried couples; for the next two years unmarried individuals may transfer up to $5 million upon their death tax-free. But this isn’t permanent (the law will likely change again at the end of 2012) and anyone with an estate over $5 million will end up leaving their heirs with a hefty estate tax bill.

Luckily, some of these estate tax challenges can be overcome with some good estate planning and by thinking ahead. “If one partner has more assets, he can transfer some assets to his partner each year… Each year, individuals can make gifts up to $13,000 to any number of people. That can even up the two partners’ estates and hopefully avoid a big estate tax bill when the richer partner dies.” If it’s clear that estate taxes simply cannot be avoided, the wealthier partner may want to consider setting up an Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust to cover the cost of estate taxes.

Beyond the issue of estate taxes, the article brings up the good point that “same-sex couples are more likely to face challenges to their wills, usually from family members who do not approve of their lifestyle.” This provides more incentive than ever to have a well-thought-out estate plan, which can be drafted with just such a possibility in mind.

Regardless of state of residence, same-sex or unmarried couples simply do not have the same benefits as traditionally married couples, which means that same-sex or unmarried couples have to plan carefully to achieve their estate planning goals. It may require more forethought and effort, but the good news is that with the right kind of planning it is possible for non-traditional couples to protect and provide for the people they love.

Government Rescinds Medicare Coverage of End-Of-Life Planning

Current Events, Health CareNo Comments

Apparently the suspicion surrounding end-of-life planning is not as far in the past as we might have hoped. The recent Medicare regulation which would have allowed the government to pay doctors who advise patients on options for end-of-life care was rescinded only days after it was enacted.

Why such an abrupt turnaround? The reason is probably not too difficult to guess. Most people know that Medicare-covered end-of-life planning has a tempestuous history both in politics and in the media. This article in the New York Times stated that “while administration officials cited procedural reasons for changing the rule, it was clear that political concerns were also a factor.”

The alteration of the rule may be disappointing, but it shouldn’t stop you from thinking—or talking to your doctor—about your choices for your own end-of-life care. After all, this administrative change of heart does not alter the fact that having these discussions with your doctor (as well as with your health care agent and loved ones) preserve patient autonomy at a time when events may seem to spiral out of control. As National Public Radio pointed out in their article, “it remains perfectly legal for physicians to talk with patients during annual visits paid for by Medicare about how much or little care they want when facing a terminal illness.”

Media firestorms and political debate notwithstanding, your decisions about your end-of-life care are important. When you have these discussions with your doctor and loved ones, and when you have a living will or healthcare directive in place, you are far more likely to get the care you want at the end of your life, regardless of how invasive or restrained you want that care to be.

If you have reservations about what a health care directive might mean to your future medical care, or if you have any questions about this issue, please don’t hesitate to call our office. Your peace of mind is our first priority.

No More Excuses, It’s Time To Plan Your Estate

Current Events, Estate PlanningNo Comments

The dust surrounding all the estate tax law “remodeling” is finally settling, and it’s time now for families to give their old (or future) estate plans some serious scrutiny. For all of you who were waiting until Congress made some firm decisions on the estate tax laws—there are no more excuses. Forbes writers Janet Novack and Ashlea Ebeling explain in their recent article why—now that the estate tax is no longer in flux—it is so important to move quickly on your estate plan.

Many first time planners will be ready to take advantage of the new laws, now that the “hefty $5 million exemption, combined with a new portability provision, should allow many affluent couples to simplify their planning.” Couples with estate plans already in place will be able to take advantage of the new laws as well, but the motivation to update their existing plans may have more to do with the need to undo outdated formulas in wills and trusts that, with the new laws in place, may now do more harm than good.

“Many couples have old wills designed mainly to preserve the estate tax exemption of the first spouse to die, something the law now does. Under these old “formula” wills, when the first spouse dies assets equal to his or her federal estate exemption go into a “bypass trust” for their kids. The surviving spouse has access to the trust’s earnings and, if need be, principal, but what’s in the trust “bypasses” the survivor’s estate. Problem is, with the exemption jumping to $5 million (it was only $2 million in 2008) the survivor could be left with nothing outside the trust.”

The new estate tax laws are much friendlier to middle-income families, but don’t let that fool you into thinking you don’t need to plan at all. “Whatever your age, marital status or net worth, you need a will (saying who gets your stuff); a living will (stating your wishes about end-of-life care); a health care proxy (naming someone to make medical decisions for you if you can’t); and a durable power of attorney (designating someone to act on your behalf in financial and legal matters if you can’t).” Not to mention you still may have state taxes to contend with in your estate plan.

Now is the time to call your attorney and talk about estate planning in the New Year. There is no more reason to procrastinate, and it’s your family’s legacy that’s on the line.

Resolutions to Last You Through the Year

Current EventsNo Comments

What are your resolutions for 2011? A majority of New Year’s resolutions have to do with money and health—or more specifically, with saving money and losing weight. Unfortunately, most New Year’s resolutions don’t last through the first month of the year. But what if there were steps you could take in that first month, when you’re still feeling inspired and motivated, that would pay-off throughout the rest of the year when all your good intentions fall by the wayside?

Luckily, there are steps you can take right now that will help you save money throughout the rest of the year. This article in USA Today lists 5 steps you can take right now to help you save money in 2011:

  1. Order your free credit report
  2. Get a medical exam
  3. Update your beneficiaries
  4. Increase your 401(k) contributions
  5. Rebalance your portfolio

All of these will help you keep your 2011 resolutions throughout the entire year, but the ones we’re most concerned with are #s 2 and 3. Too many people “take care of business” pertaining to beneficiaries and 401(k)s when they first get hired (or open a new account or life insurance policy) and then never think of it again. But lives change over the years, and the people you listed, or the amount you contributed 5 or 10 years ago is probably not what’s best for your family right now.

The New Year brings with it new beginnings… and new hopes. Why not take advantage of this feeling of optimistic euphoria by taking steps now that will carry you through the entire year?

Taking Time for End-Of-Life Planning

Current Events, Health CareNo Comments

Advance Health Care Directives (legal documents which include a nomination of your health care agent, and your preferences for end-of-life care) saw a lot of press in 2009 when the Obama administration sought to include end-of-life planning in the new healthcare overhaul. The option was dropped after a media firestorm about “death panels,” but according to this article in the New York Times Medicare-funded end-of-life discussions may be back.

According to the new regulation, Medicare will pay for “voluntary advance care planning” as part of patients’ annual visits with their doctor. “Under the new policy, outlined in a Medicare regulation, the government will pay doctors who advise patients on options for end-of-life care, which may include advance directives to forgo aggressive life-sustaining treatment.”

The reasoning behind the new regulation is simple, and something estate planning lawyers have known for a long time; “research [has] shown the value of end-of-life planning. ‘Advance care planning improves end-of-life care and patient and family satisfaction and reduces stress, anxiety and depression in surviving relatives.’” Additionally, “end-of-life discussions between doctor and patient help ensure that one gets the care one wants.”

So why does end-of-life planning make so many people uncomfortable when research has shown just how beneficial it can be? Paula Span, author of this post on the New Old Age blog thinks it might simply be a matter of semantics, especially when it involved the term “Do Not Resuscitate.” Ms. Span argues that a more friendly term such as “Allow Natural Death” could make all the difference in the world.

“The phrase “do not resuscitate” signals an intent to withhold or refuse… ‘It says you’re not going to do something.’ To “allow natural death,” on the other hand, connotes permission. ‘It doesn’t sound so overwhelming or scary.’”

Whatever term you use, or however you choose to talk about it, the important thing is that you DO talk about it—with your family and loved ones, with the person you choose as your agent, with your doctor… and even with your lawyer. End-of-life planning is about personal and medical preferences, but the document itself is a legal one; your lawyer can help ensure that your Advance Health Care Directive will hold up in a court of law as well as in the hospital.

Technology for the Older Generation

Current EventsNo Comments

There is a common complaint among Baby Boomers when it comes to aging parents and grandparents: It’s hard to keep in touch with them. Most communication among the middle and younger generations now takes place on the computer—e-mail, Facebook, electronic photo-sharing and more. Very rarely do we pick up the phone for a good old-fashioned chat; and when we do it’s usually on the go, in the form of a quick call or text message from our cell phones. Unfortunately, where all this technology helps us to be more connected to friends and family in our own cohort, it ends up leaving our elderly loved ones out of the conversation.

Karen Stabiner, in her article “Elder Tech: What’s Important” argues that it doesn’t have to be this way. Stabiner states that the key to getting elderly relatives involved in high-tech communication is to get out of our own heads and look at it from their point of view. “For technology to become ‘sticky’ with the older generation, we have to get into their heads and understand what would make them think this is fun… The bells and whistles that might attract us are too often counterintuitive [for them.]”

The younger, tech-savvy generations tend to look for high-tech devices that do everything, but that’s not necessarily what’s going to be appealing to grandma or grandpa. This article in GrayTimes.com suggests that single-purpose gadgets—devices designed only for e-mail or only for sharing photos—are more intuitive for elderly users.

New high-tech devices may be harder for parents or grandparents to use, but being able to connect with their loved ones can be a huge motivating factor. Being able to communicate with family makes our elderly parents and grandparents happy, but it also helps keep them safe. Adult children who communicate with their parents on a regular basis are better able to recognize and respond when mom or dad suddenly have trouble caring for themselves.

At Long Last: What to Expect from Estate Taxes in 2011

Current Events, Estate PlanningNo Comments

It has been a long and uncertain year for anybody interested in the future of the estate tax, filled with a few ups, a few downs, and a lot of speculation.  But after the recent passage of the new bipartisan tax bill all of the confusion and speculation is finally at an end, and it’s very close to what we anticipated early last week.  The bill is good news for most taxpayers; the Wall Street Journal says there are “many winners, a few losers,” and according to the New York Times “Almost no one will have to worry about paying the estate tax under the tax legislation just approved by Congress.”

Here is a brief overview of what you can expect in 2011:

New Estate Tax Exemptions and Rates: The new bill sets the estate tax exemption at $5 million per individual ($10 million per married couple), with amounts over the exemption taxed at a 35% rate.  This is opposed to the $3.5 million exemption and 45% rate some lawmakers were hoping for.

Tax Election Option for 2010 Estates: As mentioned in a previous post, this is one of the biggest parts of the new bill. There may have been no estate tax in 2010, but there was also no “step up in basis,” meaning that heirs selling inherited assets were taxed based on the original acquisition cost of the assets, not on their value as of the date of the taxpayer’s death, as is usually the case.  This led to a higher tax paid on the assets if and when they were sold, in spite of the lack of estate tax. Tax election gives 2010 estates the choice of whether to use 2010 or 2011 tax rules—a happy option for 2010 heirs.

Estate, Gift, and Generation-Skipping Taxes: In recent years these three levies have had varying exemption levels, making gift giving and succession planning and challenging exercise at best. The unification of all three makes tax planning and giving gifts to grandchildren much easier than it used to be.

Individual Income and Payroll Taxes: The new bill wasn’t just about estate taxes; it also extends the Bush-era income tax rates; this is good news as it prevents a rise for nearly all taxpayers.

How Long Will It Last? We’re all glad that the waiting is over and we finally know what to expect, but the new law is only effective through 2012, at which point the provisions will “sunset.” This new tax package sets our minds at ease now, but the estate tax issue is far from over.  It looks as if we may have to revisit the issue in 2012-2013.

With the threat of high estate taxes out of the way does any reason remain to create (or update) your estate plan? Absolutely!

Estate planning is about more than just planning for taxes, it’s about taking control of your assets and choosing how your estate will be distributed.  Divorce, second marriages, planning for college, charitable gifts—these are just a few of the reasons why estate planning is essential regardless of the state of the estate tax.

At the very least, the recent fluctuation of the law means that you’ll want to call our office and make an appointment to have your existing plan reviewed and updated to ensure you don’t have any outdated clauses that could negatively affect your heirs.

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