Am I Cut Out to Be Your Power of Attorney?

Next Avenue’s article, “Saying ‘No’ to Power of Attorney Duty,” says that not everyone’s cut out to be a power of attorney (POA)., There are many reasons children and others may need to say no when asked. Becoming a power of attorney is a big job. This obligation shouldn’t be entered into without great consideration. With the POA legal instrument, a person named power of attorney is referred to as the “agent” or “attorney-in-fact,” and the person on whose behalf she’s acting is the “principal.”

While there are several combinations and varieties of power of attorney, there are two common ones. General durable power of attorney, also known as power of attorney for finances, allows the named agent to act on behalf of the principal to take care of that person’s finances like banking, paying bills, or selling a house. Health care or medical power of attorney allows the agent to make health care decisions, in the event the principal is incapacitated.

A common misconception about POAs, is that people think that if they’re named as an agent on a POA, they’ll wind up owing money for the principal’s unpaid medical bills. Not so. An agent is merely acting on behalf of another person, not making themselves personally liable. However, there are other reasons a person may want to decline being named power of attorney. Ask yourself these questions, when considering whether to commit to being someone’s power of attorney:

  • Can you drop everything for weeks or months and make critical medical decisions?
  • Do you have the emotional strength to make hard, life-and-death decisions?
  • How is the family dynamic? Do you have a sibling who’s quick to anger or who could be suspicious of your motives, when it comes to medical or financial decisions?

If you’re not up to it, and the person who appointed or plans to name you as POA is still capable, it’s best to talk directly with that person about your concerns. Be honest and let them know how you feel.

The possibility of a POA not being able to serve is highly likely, and that’s why everyone should designate successor agents. These alternates in a POA can cover the inability, or inevitability, that someone may not be able to serve.

If you really don’t want to be power of attorney, be honest with your family member and tell her, “I’m worried enough about you to tell you, that I’m not the right person.”

Reference: Next Avenue (September 11, 2018) “Saying ‘No’ to Power of Attorney Duty”

How The Ancient Ones Handled Their Estate Planning

It’s not unusual for a family member to find an old bank account or painting, years after someone has passed and the estate has been closed. If it’s not something of great value, says Above the Law in the article “Old Money, Same Issues: Lessons from the 5th Century in Organizing Your Estate,” it’s easy to handle. Contacting a few members of the family to see who wants a small item, can be a simple task.

However, if it’s of high value, the family may need to petition a bank, the probate court or even an unclaimed funds bureau for access to the asset, so it can be distributed to beneficiaries or heirs. The testator needs to appoint a meticulous administrator so no stone is left unturned, when the time comes for marshalling all of the assets, before the estate can be closed.

Israeli archeologists recently unearthed deeply buried stones related to the estate of an ancient Samaritan named Adios. The stone had an inscription that read “Only God help the beautiful property of Master Adios, amen.” The estate is reported to date back 1,600 years to the 5th century. The estate contained stone mechanisms for making wine, flour and oil, including a mill. It was fairly well organized.

We have now organized people who take care of their heirs and beneficiaries, by listing all of their assets and taking the time to have an estate plan created that includes a detailed will, among other important documents. We are centuries away from inscribed stones, but the game plan is the same: write down the assets, have a will that details what assets go to either people or charitable organizations and prepare for the future.

If there is no list of assets, there are ways to uncover them. However, it creates a lot of work for the executor and stress for the family, that could be avoided with an estate plan.

The best evidence of asset holdings are often a decedent’s tax returns. General supporting documentation can reveal useful information about a person’s financial status. A look at a decedent’s paper files can reveal bank accounts, investment accounts and insurance policies.

If the assets are not properly documented in an estate plan, the monies may end up in a state’s unclaimed funds depository. Real estate, if taxes are not paid, may be seized. Many of the concerns for unclaimed funds can be addressed, by taking the time to create a spreadsheet of information and sharing it with the executor.

Whether your assets include a stone mill or bank accounts, an estate plan that includes clear and organized information about your assets will increase the likelihood that your assets will be distributed and not disappear, until they are uncovered centuries later.

Reference: Above The Law (March 5, 2019) “Old Money, Same Issues: Lessons from the 5th Century in Organizing Your Estate”

Social Security Scams Keep Going

It seems like scammers have become more aggressive and a frightening tone has gotten more than one otherwise sensible person embroiled in them. Crooks are calling and telling people that their Social Security numbers have been suspended, and that they need the number and the person’s bank account information to issue a refund, says KKTV’s report “Social Security officials hope to combat scam.”

In addition to the aggressive angry voice, is the fact that the caller ID has been “spoofed” or made to appear that the person is actually calling from the Social Security Administration or another government agency.

Nancy Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, advises people to be very cautious and not to provide anyone with information like their Social Security number or bank account information to unknown people, either on the phone or over the Internet.

The SSA has launched a public service campaign warning about these calls, in the hope that consumers will realize that the SSA never makes threatening phone calls and never asks for gift cards in payment. The campaign is being run in conjunction with the Office of the Inspector General.

The scamming calls are nationwide. The message is clear: if you get this kind of a phone call, hang up.

While the SSA does occasionally call people, it’s usually someone who is working with the agency on an on-going matter, so that the call and the agent making the call is not a stranger.

Berryhill advises people that if they are contacted by someone claiming to be from the Social Security Administration or the Office of the Inspector General, they should get the person’s name, their phone number and then hang up. If the same person calls again, hang up. It is more than likely to be a thief.

Contact the local Social Security office and find out if a call has been made to you. Never provide a caller with your Social Security number.

Some of the crooks are able to get information about people, including part of their Social Security numbers, and they call stating that they are asking only to verify the entire Social Security number. Again, if someone from Social Security was really calling, they would have that information and would not need it to be verified.

Reference: KKTV (March 22, 2019) “Social Security officials hope to combat scam”

 

If You’re Single with No Kids and Approaching Retirement, You Still Need an Estate Plan

You may have been busy building your career, socking away money and enjoying your time off with weekends away and exotic vacations.

Forbes’ recent article, “5 Estate Planning Strategies For Singles,” says that, as you move closer to retirement, you should seriously think about your estate plan. Here are some important components:

Power of attorney and a health care proxy. These are used while you’re still alive. They let you choose who will make important financial and medical decisions for you, if you can’t make them for yourself. A single person must be sure that she’s named someone she trusts to make these decisions. When you die, the power of attorney and health care proxy are no longer valid, so you also need to create a will and trust.

Will. You need to designate an executor of your estate. This individual will take care of your affairs after you die, probate your will if necessary and pay any income and estate taxes. The beneficiary of your will can also be a revocable trust that you create during your lifetime.

Revocable trust. While you are alive, you should be named the primary beneficiary. You may also want to provide benefits for your significant other, especially if you live together and you’re the primary breadwinner. Name the beneficiaries who’ll receive the assets at your death. You also need to name a successor trustee to manage the trust assets, in the event you are unable to manage them yourself. The successor trustee will play an important role, if you’re incapacitated. As a single person, naming someone to manage the assets for you is an important part of your planning. If you fund the trust during your lifetime and are later incapacitated, the successor trustee can use the funds for your care.

Estate taxes. Many singles don’t mind if their beneficiaries receive less, and the government receives more. However, if you do care, there are many planning options to consider, such as charitable giving as a way to reduce taxes and give back to those charitable institutions that have played an important role in your life. You can also make lifetime gifts to family and friends.

If you’re that single person without an estate plan, don’t wait until the last minute. Otherwise, it will be too late.

Reference: Forbes (March 15, 2019) “5 Estate Planning Strategies For Singles”

Should Pets Be Part of Your Estate Plan?

Most of us don’t have the luxury (or the need) to leave our pets $12 million, but to make sure that our pets are cared for, having a legally enforceable trust for a pet, which is allowed in New York State, can provide peace of mind. That is part of the answer to the question posed by the Times Herald-Record in the article “Who’ll care for your pets when you’re gone?”

A will is a document used in a court proceeding called probate, if you die with assets that are only in your name. When the will goes through probate, it becomes a public document. A trust, on the other hand, is a document that does not become part of the public record, unless it was created under a will. Some people use trusts for their beloved pets, to pay for their care and maintain their lifestyle. Some pets lead fancier lives than others!

Most people leave the care of pets in the hands of friends or relatives and hope for the best. Visit any animal shelter and you’ll see the animals whose owners could not take care of them, or whose friends or family members intended to take care of them, but for whatever reasons, could not care for them. Putting a pet trust into your estate plan, is a better way to care for pets, if you outlive them.

The pet trust has several steps, and an estate planning attorney will be able to set it up for you. First, you need to appoint a trustee of the trust funds. This person is in charge of the financial aspect of the trust, from paying vet bills, making sure pet health insurance premiums are paid, to providing money for the caretaker to buy supplies. It’s a good idea to have a secondary trustee, just in case.

Next, you name a caretaker of the pet. This person can be the same as the trustee, although it may be better to name a different person, to create some checks and balances on the funds. You can, if you like, give the trustee the right to appoint a caregiver or a back-up caregiver. Make sure you discuss all of these details with the trustee and the caregiver and their back-ups to be sure that everyone understands their roles, and all are willing to take on these responsibilities. Some pets can live a long time, and you want to have everyone understand what they are undertaking.

Third, you’ll need to designate the amount of money to be held in trust for the pets for medical care, daily living costs and support until the pet dies. Don’t forget to include the cost of burial or cremation.

Finally, name the persons or organizations you wish to receive any remaining funds.

An informal letter of instruction to both the trustee and the caregiver would be very helpful. Provide details on the pet’s personality, quirky behavior, preferences for food, treats, play and any information that will help all the parties get along well. You should also provide information on your pet’s vet, any registration numbers for microchips, medical and dental records, medications, etc.

Want to know more about putting pets into your trust? Check out this link.

Reference: Times Herald-Record (March 9, 2019) “Who’ll care for your pets when you’re gone?”

What Do I Do First After the Death of My Spouse?

There is no doubt that the stress can be all-consuming, when a spouse passes away. It’s not a good time to make financial decisions. You should also avoid making any major changes for at least a year, if you’re able. Allow your emotions to settle, prior to doing anything that could drastically impact your taxes and finances.

U.S. News & World Report recently published an article, “Don’t Make These Mistakes When Your Spouse Passes Away,” that warns us to take care to avoid these mistakes after the death of a spouse:

Taxes. Your tax-filing status will change after a spouse passes away. That could move you into a higher tax bracket or cause you to lose tax breaks. You can’t file married filing jointly and no longer have two exemptions.

Social Security and Annuity Income. You may also lose your deceased partner’s Social Security income. Widows and widowers can claim a Social Security survivor’s payment that’s equal to the amount the higher earning spouse received. However, there will now be just one Social Security check coming in, not two. In some instances, pension or annuity payments might also cease. You may see significant changes to income.

Unplanned Withdrawals from Tax-Deferred Accounts. Many people seek to make up lost income, by taking retirement account withdrawals. However, a mistake can trigger both taxes and penalties. Income tax is due on each traditional 401(k) or IRA withdrawal, because when you withdraw tax-deferred money, there are tax consequences. When you make a withdrawal from a spouse’s IRA, taxes are due. If you’re not 59½ or older, you could also pay a 10% early withdrawal penalty. Surviving spouses should try to minimize taxes on retirement account withdrawals to help the money last as long as possible.

Paying Taxes on Retirement Account Withdrawals Too Early. A surviving spouse can transfer tax-deferred retirement account assets into his or her name. That frequently lets a person further delay taxation. If you are under 70½, you can defer taxes into the future.

Paying a 10% Early Withdrawal Penalty. If the surviving spouse isn’t yet 59½ and needs some of the money in a retirement account, you can transfer the money into an inherited spousal IRA. If you need money, the IRS will let you take distributions. You’ll have to pay taxes, but you avoid the 10% penalty.

Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs). Distributions from retirement accounts are required after age 70½—even in the year when the spouse passes away. If the decedent was in payout mode and past 70½, make certain that between the decedent and beneficiary, you still take the required minimum distribution. If you forget, there’s a possible penalty of up to 50% of what you should have taken.

Advice. It’s not easy or practical to delve into your finances, right after losing a loved one. Don’t make any big money moves without advice. Remember to also incorporate tax planning with your estate planning, and work with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (February 15, 2019) “Don’t Make These Mistakes When Your Spouse Passes Away”

Spare Your Family From a Feud: Make Sure You Have a Will

If for no other reason than to avoid fracturing the family, as they squabble over who gets Aunt Nina’s sideboard or Uncle Bruno’s collection of baseball cards, everyone needs a will. It is true that having an estate plan created does require us to consider what we want to happen after we have died, which most of us would rather not think about.

However, whether we want to think about it or not, having an estate plan in place, and that includes a will, is a gift of peace we give to our loved ones and ourselves. It’s peace of mind that our family is being told exactly what we want them to do after we pass, and peace of mind to ourselves that we’ve put our plan into place.

A recent article from Fatherly, “How to Write a Will: 8 Tips Every Parent Needs to Know,” starts with the basic premise that a will prevents family squabbles. Families fight, when they don’t have clear direction of what the deceased wanted. That’s just one reason to have a last will and testament. However, there are other reasons.

A will is one way to ensure that your property is eventually distributed as you wish. Without a will, your estate is administered as an “intestate estate,” which means the state’s laws will determine who receives your assets after you pass. In some states, that means your spouse gets half of your estate, with your parents getting the rest (if there are no children). If the parents have died and there are no children, the rest of the estate may go to your siblings.

Most people—some studies say as many as 60% of Americans—don’t have a will. It’s hard to say why they don’t: maybe they don’t want to accept their own mortality, maybe they don’t understand what will happen when they die without a will, or perhaps they want to wreak havoc on their families. However, having a will is essential.

Don’t delay. If you don’t have a will in place, stop putting it off. Creating a will gives you the opportunity to effectuate your wishes, not that of the state. What if you don’t want your long-lost brother showing up just to receive a portion of your estate? If you don’t want someone to receive any of your assets, you need to have a will. Otherwise, there’s no way to know how the distribution will play out.

Be thoughtful about how you distribute your assets. If you have children and your will gives them your assets when they reach 18, will they be prepared to manage without blowing their inheritance in a month? A qualified estate planning attorney will be able to help you create a plan for distributing your wealth to children or other heirs in a sequence that will match their financial abilities. You may want to create a trust that will hold the assets, with a trustee who can ensure that assets are distributed in a wise and timely manner.

Every family is different, and today’s families, which often include children from prior marriages, require special planning. If you have remarried and have not legally adopted your spouse’s children from a previous marriage, they are not your legal heirs. If you want to make sure they inherit money or a specific asset, you’ll need to state that clearly in your will. If you are not married to your partner, they will not have any rights to your estate, unless a will is created that directs the assets you want them to inherit.

Parents of young children absolutely need a will. If you do not, and both parents pass away at the same time, their future will be determined by the court. They could end up in foster care, while awaiting a court decision. Battling grandparents may create a tumultuous situation. The court could also name a guardian who you would never have chosen. A will lets you decide.

Speak with an estate planning attorney to make sure you have a will that is properly prepared and follows the laws of your state. You also want to have a power of attorney and a health care agent named. Having these plans made before you need them, gives you the ability to express your wishes in a way that can be legally enforced.

Reference: Fatherly (Feb. 6, 2019) “How to Write a Will: 8 Tips Every Parent Needs to Know”

Tips to Boost Your Tax-Free Income in Retirement

There is a bright side to the income taxes that will follow you into retirement. Create a pool of tax-free income, advises CNBC, by following the advice in the article “3 tips to help boost your tax-free income in retirement.”

Introduce yourself to the Roth IRA and the Roth 401(k). Unlike a traditional IRA, with a Roth IRA you pay taxes when you make your contribution to the account. The funds then grow tax-free over time and, as long as you meet certain conditions, there are no taxes on withdrawals. With a Roth IRA, there are none of those pesky RMDs (Required Minimum Distributions). However, there are withdrawal distribution requirements for a Roth (401)k.

Most employers offer Roth IRA and Roth 401(k) accounts, so there’s a good chance they are offered by your employer.

Roth IRAs are often offered along with their counterpart, the traditional 401(k). Between the two of them, it’s possible to save as much as $19,000 in 2019. For those workers who are 50 and over, you can add $6,000 as a catch-up contribution.

The power of the Roth 401(k) is the tax-free compounding that takes place over time. Don’t miss out on this, if you want to max out your tax-free savings.

There are two different types of Roth plans: the Roth 401(k) and a Roth IRA. Roth IRA plans have income limits. If your modified AGI (Adjusted Gross Income) is more than $137,000 for a single and $203,000 for a couple filing jointly, you aren’t allowed to make a direct contribution to a Roth IRA. However, there are no income caps for Roth (401)k. You can also save more for retirement in a Roth 401(k), compared to a Roth IRA. Roth IRAs are also subject to annual contribution limits: $6,000 in 2019, plus a $1,000 catch-up contribution, if you are over age 50.

Here are three steps to make your retirement savings more tax free:

Can you do an in-plan conversion? If your employer offers a Roth 401(k), you may be able to convert some of your traditional 401(k) savings to the Roth. This is called an in-plan Roth conversion. Just like a direct contribution to a Roth 401(k), it will be taxable. Therefore, make sure that you run the numbers before moving funds. You’ll be responsible for taxes on pretax principal and earnings. Don’t do it all at once, so that you don’t find yourself moved into a higher tax bracket.

What does your plan allow? If you’ve left your employer and have money in both a traditional 401(k) and a Roth (401)k, you might want to convert those accounts — if your retirement plan allows it.  Remember that you may not write a check from an outside bank account to add after-tax money to a Roth 401(k).

What’s your time-frame? Just as young workers are in the best position to save early and often, they are also in the best position to make the most out of Roth savings accounts of all types. It’s likely that younger workers have not yet reached their full career and earnings stage, so now is the best time to put money into a Roth 401(k). When incomes are higher, so will taxes on Roth retirement account contributions. If you’re close to retirement, there are other timing factors to consider, primarily Medicare. How much you pay for Medicare Part B and D, which covers doctor’s visits and prescription drugs, depends upon your modified gross income from two years ago. Do the conversion to a Roth at age 62, if you intend to file for Medicare at age 65.

Reference: CNBC (Feb. 10, 2019) “3 tips to help boost your tax-free income in retirement”

A Love Letter to Your Family

Now, to the 70% of Americans who do not have an estate plan, the article “Senior Spotlight: Composing the ‘family love letter’” from the Lockport Journal should help you understand why this is so important. One reason why people don’t take care of this simple task, is because they don’t fully understand why estate planning is needed. They think it’s only for the wealthy, or that it’s only for old people, or even that it’s only about death and taxes.

Consider this idea: an estate plan is about protecting yourself while you are alive, protecting your family when you have passed and leaving a legacy for the living.

Some of the main elements of an estate plan are to create and execute documents that provide for incapacity and death, as well as provide information about your assets, liabilities and wishes.

You’ve spent a lifetime accumulating assets. It is now time to sit down with family members and have a heart-to-heart talk about the details of the estate and what your intentions are with respect to its distribution. The subject of death can be challenging for all. However, discussing your estate plan is vital, if you want to protect your family from what might come after you are gone. Each family has its own goals, so it’s a good idea to talk about it frankly, while you still can.

Without discussions and an estate, the chances of a family split, assets not going where you had intended and unnecessarily higher costs in taxes and legal fees, are a very real possibility.

If speaking about these topics is too hard, you may want to write your family a love letter. It would contain all the information that your family would need at the time of your death or if you become incapacitated because of illness or injury.

Your estate plan should also include the documents needed, so your family can make decisions on your behalf, if you are incapacitated. That includes a power of attorney, a health care directive and may include others specific to your situation.

Ideally, all this information will be located in one convenient place. Don’t put it on a computer where you use a password. If the family cannot access your computer, all your hard work will be useless to them. Put it in a folder or a notebook, that is clearly labeled and tell family members where it is.

They’ll need this information:

  • A list of your important contacts — your estate planning attorney, financial advisor, CPA, insurance broker and medical professionals.
  • Credit card information, frequent flier miles.
  • Insurance and benefits including all health, life, disability, long-term care, Medicare, property deeds, employment and any military benefits.
  • Documents including your will, power of attorney, birth certificates, military papers, divorce decrees and citizenship papers.

Think of these materials and discussions as your opportunity to make a statement for the future generation. If you don’t have an estate plan in place already or if you have not reviewed your estate plan in more than a few years, it’s time to make an appointment for a review. Your life may have not changed, but tax laws have, and you’ll want to be sure your estate is not entangled in old strategies that no longer benefit your family.

Reference: Lockport Journal (Feb. 16, 2019) “Senior Spotlight: Composing the ‘family love letter’”

Kids Grown Up? Protect Them with These Three Documents

Without the right documents in place, you do not have the legal right to protect your own children, once they turn 18, says The National Law Review in an unsettling but must-read article titled “Three Critical Legal Documents Every Parent Should Get in Place Now to Safeguard Their Adult Children.”

There are only three documents and they are fairly straightforward. There is no reason not to have them in place. If your adult child was incapacitated by an accident or an illness, you would want to speak with the medical staff to find out how they are and what decisions need to be made. Whether you were making a phone call or arriving at the hospital, a nurse or doctor would not be permitted to speak with you about your own adult child’s condition or be involved with making any medical decisions.

It sounds unreasonable, and perhaps it is, but that is the law. There are steps you can take to ensure that you are not in this situation.

HIPAA Authorization Form gives you the authority to speak with healthcare providers. This is a federal law (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) that safeguards who can access an adult’s private health data. HIPAA prevents healthcare providers from revealing any information to you or anyone else about a patient’s status. The practitioners could face severe penalties for violating HIPAA.

This is why you want to have a HIPAA authorization signed by your adult child and naming you as an authorized recipient.  This will give you the ability to ask for and receive information about your child’s health status, progress and treatment. This is especially important, if your child is unconscious or in an unresponsive state. The alternative? Going to court. That’s not what you want to be doing during a health emergency.

A Healthcare Power of Attorney needs to be in place, so you can be named his or her “medical agent” and have the ability to view their medical records and make informed decisions on their behalf. Without this (or a court-appointed guardianship), healthcare decisions will be in the hands of healthcare providers only. That’s not a bad thing, if you implicitly trust your child’s doctor. However, if your child is incapacitated in an out-of-town hospital with healthcare providers you don’t know, you will want to be able to make decisions on his or her behalf.

Note that physicians prefer a single medical agent, not a handful. The concern is that if time is a critical factor and a group of family members do not agree on care, it may compromise the healthcare services that can be provided. You can name multiple agents in priority order. A mother might be listed as the medical agent, and if she is unable or unwilling to serve, the second person would be the father.

The third document is a General Power of Attorney. This would give you the right to make financial decisions on your child’s behalf, if they were to become incapacitated. You would have the legal right to manage bank accounts, pay bills, sign tax returns, apply for government benefits, break or apply a lease and conduct activities on behalf of your child. Without this document, you won’t be able to help your child without a court-appointed conservatorship.

Keep in mind that these documents need to be updated every few years. If you try to use an older document, the bank or hospital may not accept them. Your adult child also has the ability to revoke these documents at any time, just by saying they revoke them or by putting it in writing. If you have an adult child living out of state, you want to have these documents prepared for your home state and their state of residence.

Finally, this is not a time to download forms and hope for the best. An estate planning attorney will know more specifically what forms are used in your state and help you make sure that they are prepared correctly.

Reference: The National Law Review (Feb. 11, 2019) “Three Critical Legal Documents Every Parent Should Get in Place Now to Safeguard Their Adult Children”