Three Considerations for Estate Planning During a Pandemic

Three Considerations for Estate Planning During a Pandemic

The possibility of prolonged sickness or even death from COVID-19 has caused many individuals to feel more urgency to prepare advanced directives and undertake other estate planning.  In addition, the unknown final impact of the economic crisis may raise questions about how things might need to change in current plans that transfer wealth to children, charities or other beneficiaries upon death. With these factors present, there are three options to consider for estate planning.

 

  1. Advanced Directives. While planning for a health care emergency may be easier to complete before a crisis, it is not too late to get your advanced directives in place. Advanced directives are documents that express your wishes and authorize someone else (an agent) to make medical and financial decisions for you in the event you become so ill that you are unable to make your own decisions.  Typically, this involves creating both a Health Care Power of Attorney and a Durable General (Financial) Power of Attorney.  In addition to creating these documents, it is important to speak with your proposed agents about your intentions so that if they do have to make decisions, you know that they will carry out your wishes.  If you already have these documents, review them to ensure they accurately reflect your current wishes and choice of agent(s).  What do your current documents state regarding advanced life support (e.g. ventilators), and are there any changes you would like to make regarding end of life decisions?

 

  1. Make a Will or Trust. As the reality of the pandemic sinks in, people are reaching out to execute Wills or Trusts that they have put off finalizing, or to start estate plans that perhaps should have been put in place long ago. Estate planning is very easy to delay in the best of times, particularly when it involves finalizing some difficult decisions.  Or maybe it is simply a matter of not wanting to face your own mortality.  As the current health crisis reminds us, however, we never know exactly when our estate plans will be needed.  Even if you already have your documents in place, make sure you know where the originals are located, and review them to be sure they still accurately reflect your wishes.  For example, are the named executors in your Will and trustees in your trusts, as well as any successors, still suitable and willing to serve?  Consider whether there have been any major life changes with your beneficiaries or changes in your assets since you completed your plan that would necessitate updating your documents.  Focus on what makes sense to change right now and remember, you can always update your documents in the future.  Finally, make sure that your beneficiary designations on life insurance, retirement accounts and other assets are up to date.

 

  1. Ask Your Attorney for Help. Most legal offices are open, and attorneys are being creative in order to help you complete your estate planning.  We can assist you with getting your estate planning and advanced directives completed. Even if we do not meet in person, we can schedule consultations via telephone or video conference.  Documents are then emailed or mailed to you for your review.  Following your review, it is typical to have another video or phone conference to discuss any revisions or questions, and to discuss the logistics of getting your documents signed.  Wills, trusts and advanced directives all have very specific execution requirements in order to be legal.  Therefore, it is important to work with us to determine which documents in your plan can be signed remotely and which require in person witnessing and notarization.

 

We understand that completing your estate planning during a health crisis can be emotionally taxing; however, now may be the best time to take advantage of addressing your planning while these issues are on your mind.  Our estate planning attorneys are happy to guide you through the process.

 

What Happens If I Pass Without a Will?

What Happens If I Pass Without a Will?

“What will happen to my assets when I pass away?” This is the question that brings many clients into their attorney’s office for initial estate planning discussions. Typically, their estate planning attorney will ask questions to learn about their assets, family and wishes. From that information, the attorney will work to craft a plan that best achieves those goals. Many clients make that initial appointment intending only to create a Will, but soon learn that a comprehensive estate plan is about much more than the contents of a Last Will and Testament. In most cases, beneficiary designations, marital property agreements or trusts become important components for the plan. The purpose of this article is to examine what happens if that meeting never occurs and the individual passes without any estate planning done.

As a preliminary matter, it is important to note that most people have at least done some estate planning even if they have never written a Will or met with an attorney. Typically, this comes in the form of a beneficiary designation on financial accounts, life insurance or retirement assets like 401(k)s. Alternatively, some may own property in a form of title which creates rights of survivorship. While these choices may not have been a part of a comprehensive plan, they do represent decisions which have deviated from the “default.” This sort of uncoordinated and piece-meal planning can sometimes cause more harm than good, especially when beneficiary designations are not updated for many years or are not made consistent with other planning documents. For example, a decades old beneficiary designation on an account will control over a newly executed Will unless the designation is updated. For the purpose of this article’s examination of what happens without any estate planning, we assume these designations were left blank and assets are titled such that there are no survivorship rights.

For residents of the State of Wisconsin, the “default” is found in Wisconsin Statute Section 852.01. In a sense, this statute is the state legislature writing a Will for anyone who has not written their own. The distribution pattern written into this section attempts to grasp what most people would have selected in their Will had they written one, or in a beneficiary designation had they made one. As such, the more “traditional” your family structure is, the more likely the default will align with your actual desires as it is based on the “issue.” The term “issue” in this context of estate planning, refers to lineal descendants, typically children and grandchildren and will continue to refer to such throughout this article.

In the absence of any planning to the contrary, if you did not have any children with anyone other than your current spouse, everything will go to the spouse, if they survive you. However, if you have children from another relationship, then your surviving spouse or domestic partner will inherit one-half of your property other than your interest in marital property or property held as tenants in common with the survivor.

If there are issue, then they shall receive in equal shares any shares not inherited by the surviving spouse. If there is not a surviving spouse, then they shall receive the entire amount “per stirpes,” which is Latin for “by branch.” This means that your children each would receive an equal share, but if one of your children predeceased you, their share would instead pass to any children they had which remained alive, split by whatever number of grandchildren descended from that deceased child. If the deceased child left no issue of their own, that “branch” of the family tree has been extinguished, and the other branches assume their share.
If there is no surviving spouse or issue, then the assets pass to the deceased’s parents. If there are no surviving parents, then the shares pass equally to any siblings of the deceased, per stirpes. Here, per stirpes would again mean we would look down the family line of any predeceased siblings for a beneficiary. If no surviving beneficiaries are found at this point, then the assets pass to the grandparents per stirpes.

Any share that would go to a beneficiary under the age of 18 will be held in a custodial account for their benefit until they reach of the age of 18. This is because minor children are considered incapacitated under the law and cannot manage large sums of money on their own. When the child comes of age, whatever funds are left are turned over to their control.

Finally, if no heirs can be found as close to the deceased as any living descendant of the deceased grandparents, then the property “escheats,” or “goes to,” Wisconsin Statute § 852.01(3) to be added to the state’s school fund. Clients sometimes ask if their property will be taken by the state if they do not have a Will. This is usually what they are referring to and, as you can see, this will only happen if no family can be located out as far as the descendants of the grandparents.

In addition to the rules described above, there are a great number of exceptions and rules for special circumstances which are too numerous to discuss here. For example, someone who murders their spouse is effectively disinherited, and a parent who abandons their child can lose the rights to inherit from that child if they die. There are also rules for how domestic partners inherit from one another.

Those with children from multiple partners, who are in second or third marriages, who have the intent to treat their children differently, or want to provide for someone who is not legally their child, such as a stepchild, often find these default rules vary greatly from how they would want their assets divided. Unfortunately, the court will not hear arguments that the resulting distribution does not match what the deceased would have wanted. The only way to opt-out of the pattern established by the statute is to take affirmative steps during your lifetime.

Assets pass to the appropriate beneficiaries through probate, which is the court supervised process for distributing the assets of one’s estate upon their death and paying their final expenses. A common misconception is that a Will avoids the need for probate, but a Will merely provides alternate instructions for distribution of one’s assets in the probate process. If you have assets in multiple states, it may be necessary to have multiple probates. This is because Wisconsin courts have limited authority to dictate how property in other states transfers. Proper planning can avoid this expensive problem.

A Will also nominates a personal representative to oversee the probate process. In the absence of a nomination, the court will appoint someone to manage the probate process. Often, this is a surviving spouse or a relative who steps up to the responsibility and volunteers to take on the task. Unfortunately, the power the personal representative wields can sometimes attract those who are seeking to abuse the position for personal gain or to go on a power trip. In the absence of a clear direction by you, the court may not be able to tell the difference between these types of people.

Even if your intent matches the default distribution pattern, estate planning can still offer a number of benefits over dying intestate (without a Will). For example, certain types of estate planning can avoid the probate process entirely, saving time and money upon your death. Trust funds are commonly used to prevent beneficiaries under a certain age from gaining direct control of large sums of money. A trustee manages the funds and helps pay for expenses for the beneficiary until they reach the set age and get full rights to the property. Many prefer this option over the possibility that a grandchild would receive a sizeable inheritance upon turning 18, as statistically that money will probably be wasted and gone within a few years. Sometimes, when a beneficiary is known to be irresponsible with money and the problem does not seem likely to improve with age, trusts can hold onto the money for their entire lives.

Outside of what happens to your assets, dying without estate planning could affect who is given guardianship of your minor children. Typically, the Will is where a parent would nominate who would be charged with looking after their children were the parents to die while the children were still minors. In the absence of a nomination, the court system will decide who will take care of them. This likely will be a family member, but the court will have limited information about your child and your family dynamics. Nominating a guardian is often one of the most important reasons clients with minor children schedule an estate planning appointment.

This article only discusses what happens if you pass without an estate plan, but most estate plans will include power of attorney documents, which appoint trusted individuals to make decisions for you in the event you become incapacitated, but remain alive. These documents are critically important, and anyone over the age of 18 should have them in place. If you have questions about power of attorney, inheritance or wish to create an estate plan which distributes your assets on your terms, it may be time to speak with an attorney.

 

What Is Divestment Under Medicaid Law?

What Is Divestment Under Medicaid Law?

Divestment is when you or your spouse give away assets belonging to either or both of you and sell assets for less than fair market value. Avoiding or refusing to accept income or assets you are entitled to, such as a pension income or an inheritance would also be divestment.

While individuals and couples often want to get rid of assets so that they can qualify for Medicaid in the event they need long term care, divestment actually results in ineligibility if done within five years of applying for Medicaid. This is referred to as the five-year look-back rule.

If you have divested assets within five years of applying for Medicaid, you will be subject to a divestment penalty period. The penalty period is the amount of time that Medicaid will not cover your long-term care costs in an assisted living facility or nursing home. The length of the penalty period is determined by dividing the value of the assets divested by the average nursing home rate ($287.29 per day as of the writing of this article). The nursing home rate is updated annually. The divestment penalty period begins when you are first eligible to receive Medicaid benefits.

It is important not to confuse the annual tax-free gift exclusion with an exempt transaction for Medicaid purposes. The current annual gift tax exemption is $15,000, meaning an individual may make gifts in the amount of $15,000 to different individuals without having to file a federal gift tax return. Any annual exclusion gifts, however, would still be divestments for Medicaid purposes, and subject to the five-year look back.

Another common misconception regarding divestment is that there is some type of “claw-back” mechanism whereby the individuals who received the divested assets are made to give them back or turn them over to the nursing home. This is simply a myth. Divestment results in ineligibility for Medicaid if done within five years of applying, but no one is forced to give assets back. Ineligibility can have catastrophic results because without having the assets that have been divested, you or your spouse may have no way to pay for care during the penalty period. Proper planning is very important. The rules regarding divestment are complex and you should consult with an attorney familiar with the rules regarding Medicaid and divestment before any disqualifying divestments are made.

 

Maximizing Bequests with Charitable Contributions

Maximizing Bequests with Charitable Contributions

Many Americans wish to leave a donation to their favorite charity, community foundation or nonprofit organization when they pass away. You may be one of them. Often people decide to donate by gifting a specific dollar amount or percentage from the residue of their estate. However, you could make the most of your philanthropic intention by designating your selected organization as a beneficiary of your tax-qualified retirement plan.

Qualified retirement plans are IRS-approved retirement accounts in which income accumulates, tax-deferred, over time. These types of accounts remain the leading form of a retirement account because they allow individuals to grow their pre-tax contributions over the course of their working career. Common examples of these accounts include non-Roth IRAs, employer-sponsored 401(k)s, profit-sharing plans, and public sector 403(b) plans, as well as other tax-deferred plans.

Rather than administering your retirement account as part of your estate and making a specific bequest in the form of a cash gift to the organization, you can name the organization as a direct beneficiary of your retirement account. By naming the organization as a direct beneficiary, you will notice a double tax benefit. First, your estate will not be required to pay federal estate taxes, if the value of your estate is greater than the federal estate tax exemption, because the retirement account will receive a charitable deduction. Second, charitable organizations are tax exempt, meaning that the organization is not required to pay federal or state income taxes on the gift it receives. The organization will receive the entire balance of the account, making the most of your gift.

Another tax benefit to consider arises if you intend to give part of your estate to charity and part of your estate to individual beneficiaries. When an individual beneficiary, such as a child, receives your qualified retirement account, the IRS requires the individual to pay income taxes on the distribution. Therefore, the individual would not receive the full retirement account value. In this circumstance, you should consider leaving these individuals the remaining non-qualified accounts from your estate, such as post-tax investment accounts, Roth IRAs and common stocks. By gifting qualified accounts to a charitable organization and gifting non-qualified accounts to individual beneficiaries, you will maximize the amount you leave to all beneficiaries. Being mindful about your beneficiary designations allows you the opportunity to minimize tax payments and to make the most of your legacy gift.

If you plan to leave a percentage of a qualified retirement account to a charitable organization and the remainder to a noncharitable beneficiary, you should be aware of impacts to required minimum distributions of your beneficiaries. The timeline for the required minimum distribution for the noncharitable beneficiary may be accelerated and the individual would not be able to take the required distributions over their life expectancy. You should be on the lookout for associated tax implications before finalizing your estate plan.

An estate planning attorney, such as the skilled attorneys at Anderson O’Brien, can offer guidance as you consider a charitable gift as part of your legacy to leave a lasting impact on your community or a charitable cause that is meaningful to you.

 

What Is Probate?

What Is Probate?

Probate is an often misunderstood but frequently heard term in relation to the death of a loved one. Perhaps in completing your estate planning you have been advised to “avoid probate.” But what is probate and why is to be avoided?

Probate is the name of the legal process that takes place after someone dies for the purpose of the following:

  • Proving that a deceased person’s Last Will & Testament is valid, if there is one.
  • Determining and giving notice of the proceedings to the deceased person’s heirs, any beneficiaries named in the Will, and the deceased person’s creditors.
  • Identifying, inventorying and valuing what the deceased person owned when they died.
  • Determining who will receive the deceased person’s property (heirs, beneficiaries, creditors, etc.).
  • Distributing the remaining assets as the Will directs (or to the heirs identified by state statutes if no Will exists).

The process itself involves filing documents in the local probate court to have the Will admitted and to request that a Personal Representative (sometimes called, Executor) be appointed. The Personal Representative is thereafter required to continue to provide information to the Court and the other interested parties, until the assets and expenses are fully accounted for, and then will ultimately need to obtain approval to distribute the assets to those who are entitled.

Clients often want to avoid this process because it can take a great deal of time and requires legal paperwork and potential court appearances. It is often misunderstood that having a Will is necessary to avoid probate. There are numerous ways to avoid probate, but preparing a Will is not one of them. Whether or not probate is needed will be driven by the value and type of assets owned by the deceased person. An estate planning attorney can discuss the ways to avoid probate and what might be most suitable in your situation.

 

Using a Special Needs Trust to Ensure Your Settlement Does Not Affect Public Benefits

Using a Special Needs Trust to Ensure Your Settlement Does Not Affect Public Benefits

In Wisconsin, Medicaid (sometimes also called Medical Assistance) covers 1 in 9 adults and 1 in 3 children; in fact, 16% of the Wisconsin population gets its health care coverage through Medicaid.  Unlike the similar sounding Medicare, Medicaid is a means tested, needs-based health care coverage program, which means there are various income and asset limits that determine a person’s, or his/her family’s, eligibility.

By virtue of being a means tested program, Medicaid eligibility can be affected by receipt of funds, such as a personal injury settlement, if proper steps are not taken.  For example, to qualify for Medicaid, a single person can have no more than $2,000 in total countable assets.  If that Medicaid recipient receives a personal injury settlement of $25,000, he or she is going to be above the asset limit and at risk to lose Medicaid coverage.  Considering the exorbitant cost of medical procedures and medications, the loss of Medicaid coverage, or any needs-based benefits, can be devastating.

No injury victim should face the choice of being fully and fairly compensated for his or her injuries versus keeping his or her health care coverage.  Such a harsh outcome can be avoided by transferring the settlement funds to a properly drafted “special needs trust.”  Under normal rules, if a Medicaid recipient gives away or transfers assets to someone else, or to a trust, this results in disqualification from Medicaid (a penalty period).  A special needs trust is a type of trust that is specifically allowed under the Medicaid rules as an exception to the asset transfer rule.  A Medicaid recipient can transfer assets to a special needs trust without disqualification, and the recipient will no longer be over the asset limit.  Although the injury victim no longer has access to the funds, the trustee of the special needs trust can make distributions for his or her benefit, and there will be no loss of public benefits.

For example, our hypothetical accident victim, Courtney, receives a $25,000 settlement but is on Medicaid and Social Security Income (SSI), which are public benefits with asset limits.  Courtney wants to save this money for a car (a non-countable asset) or other items but is not sure what she would like to purchase.  If she is going to stay on public benefits, she only has ten days to report that she has received the money, and then will receive a notice that her benefits will be terminated.  Instead, Courtney’s attorney creates a special needs trust for Courtney, naming her mother as the trustee.  Courtney transfers the $25,000 to the trust without any disqualification for public benefits.  Later, Courtney decides she wants to buy a car with the settlement proceeds.  The car is bought and paid for by the special needs trust; the funds to buy the car come directly from the special needs trust, not Courtney.  Courtney gets her car and continues to receive Medicaid and SSI.

It is important to remember that Medicaid and SSI are just a couple examples of means tested/needs-based public benefits that could be affected by receipt of personal injury settlement funds.  This all serves to highlight the risk of going it alone following an accident or injury, as well as the need to hire a skilled attorney.  To be sure, when the insurance adjuster is pressuring you to settle your claim, the insurance company is not going to care whether the settlement will cause you to lose your public benefits.

 

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