Planning for Incapacity

Luke Perry’s Death Demonstrates the  Importance of Planning for Incapacity

In late February 2019, Luke Perry, who became famous starring in the 1990s TV series Beverly Hills 90210, suffered a massive stroke at age 52. He was hospitalized under heavy sedation, and five days later, when it became clear he wouldn’t recover, his family decided to remove life support.

Perry died on March 4th, 2019 surrounded by his two children—21-year-old Jack and 18-year-old Sophie—along with his fiancé, ex-wife, mother, siblings, and others.

Life and Death happen in a moment

Whether or not you were a Luke Perry fan, it’s hard not to be somewhat shocked when someone so young, successful, and seemingly healthy passes away so suddenly. In these moments, the fragile impermanence of life becomes glaringly obvious. It’s life’s way of reminding us that incapacity and death can strike at any time, no matter who you are.

Such reminders can make you feel extremely vulnerable. And they can also be a precious reminder to make the most of life now.

Reminders of the fleeting nature of life can actually be a wonderful thing, if it motivates you to savor life now AND take the proper action to protect the ones you love through proper estate planning. And while we don’t yet know exactly what levels of planning Perry had in place, it appears he was thoughtful and responsible enough to have at least covered the basics.

Planning for incapacity and death

Perry was reportedly inspired to create his own estate plan following a fairly recent health scare. In 2015, after discovering he had precancerous growths during a colonoscopy, Perry created a will, leaving everything to his two children. Since Perry was worth an estimated $10 million, divorced with kids from the first marriage, and about to be married again, creating a will was the very least he could do.

But wills are just a small part of the planning equation. Wills only apply to the distribution of your assets following death, and even then, your will must go through the court process known as probate for your assets to be distributed. Because a will only comes into play upon your death, if you’re ever incapacitated by accident or illness as Perry was, it offers neither you nor your family any protections.

In Perry’s case, he was incapacitated by a stroke and on life support for nearly a week before he died. During this period, the fact Perry had a will was irrelevant because he was still alive. But given how events unfolded, it appears Perry had other planning vehicles in place to prepare for just this situation.

The power over life and death

During the time he was incapacitated, someone was called upon to make crucial medical decisions for Perry’s welfare, while his family was summoned to his side. To this end, it’s likely that Perry designated someone to serve as his medical decision-maker by granting them medical power of attorney. He may have also created a living will, which would provide specific instructions to this individual regarding how to make these medical decisions.

Granting medical power of attorney gives the person you name the authority to make healthcare decisions on your behalf in the event of your incapacity. The document that does this is known as an advance healthcare directive, and it’s an absolute must-have for every adult over age 18.

Perry was put on life support for nearly a week, and then he was removed from it and allowed to die without ever regaining consciousness—and without any apparent conflict between his loved ones. This indicates that someone in his family likely had the legal authority to make those heart-wrenching decisions over Perry’s life and death.

Without medical power of attorney, if any of Perry’s family were in disagreement over how his medical care should be handled, the family may have needed a court order to terminate life support. This could have needlessly prolonged the family’s suffering and made his death even more public, costly, and traumatic for those he left behind.

The power over your money

Along with medical power of attorney, every adult should also have a financial durable power of attorney. In the event of your incapacity, financial durable power of attorney is an estate planning tool that gives the person you choose immediate authority to manage your finances, such as paying your bills, collecting government benefits, and overseeing your bank accounts.

We can’t be sure at this point whether or not Perry put in place durable power of attorney, but since this planning document goes hand-in hand with medical power of attorney, it’s almost certain he did. Yet seeing that Perry was only incapacitated for five days before his death, durable power of attorney may not seem totally necessary in his case.

But what if Perry’s incapacity had lasted a lot longer?

Given that Perry could have lingered on life support for months or years, it’s crucial that someone he trusted had the authority to manage his finances during his incapacity. Without durable power of attorney, the court will choose someone to manage your finances, and that someone might be a person you wouldn’t want anywhere near your life savings or checkbook.

What’s more, that someone could even be a “professional” who gets paid hefty hourly fees to handle things, even if you have family members who want to serve.

Learn from Perry’s example

While Perry’s death is certainly sad, if it inspires you to put the proper estate planning in place, it can ultimately prove immensely beneficial. Whether you already have a basic plan in place or nothing at all, meet with us as your Personal Family Lawyer® to get educated about the specifics necessary to keep your family out of court and out conflict if and when something happens to you.

We’ll help ensure that in the event of your incapacity, or when you die, your loved ones will have the same protections Perry’s had—and more. Contact us today to attend one of our live educational events or get started with a private Family Wealth Planning Session.

Why You Might Actually Owe Taxes in 2018

Was the 2018 tax year what you expected?

Like many taxpayers, if you’ve already filed your federal income taxes for 2018, you may be surprised to discover you’re not getting a refund this time.  If so, this was almost certainly due to the sweeping tax overhaul made by the 2017 Tax Cut and Jobs Act (TCJA).

Since personal tax rates were lowered by the TCJA, it’s natural to assume you would owe less taxes, not more. But as you may have discovered, this isn’t always the case.

Seeing that the TCJA was promised to offer most people a tax break, understanding why you might owe more taxes in 2018 (rather than less) can be confusing.  It is more complex than a blog post can really dive into, but the following questions and answers are designed to shed some light on this situation, so you can start revising your tax strategies for the coming years.

Q: What changed?

A: In addition to lowering personal income tax rates, the TCJA doubled the standard exemption to $12,000, added limits to deductions for state and local taxes (SALT), eliminated personal exemptions, set limits on deductions for home-mortgage interest, among many other changes.

Given all of the changes, you may find that you’re no longer withholding the proper amount of taxes from your paycheck and/or quarterly installments to the IRS. When filing, this can result in either overpaying your taxes (and getting a refund) or underpaying (and owing money).

Q: What does this mean for me?

A: In light of these new changes, you should carefully review your withholding and make adjustments if necessary. To help with this, the IRS published new withholding tables and updated its withholding calculator into which you can input your current tax data to see if you need to make any changes.

Q: How do I change my withholding?

A: If you work as an employee, you change your withholding by making adjustments to your W-4. If you work for yourself, you either increase or decrease your estimated quarterly payments.

A W-4 determines how much income tax is withheld from your pay by your employer. You fill out a W-4 when you start a new job, but you can change it at any time. Specifically, the form asks you for the number of allowances you want to claim based on personal factors, such as being married and/or having children and filing as head of household.

The more allowances you claim, the less federal income tax your employer will withhold, which translates to more money in your paycheck. The fewer allowances you claim, the more federal income tax your employer will withhold, lowering your take-home pay.

It’s important that you withhold the proper amount from your paycheck or make quarterly payments. Don’t withhold enough, and you’ll owe the IRS at the end of the year. Withhold too much, and you might get a big refund, but you’ve basically given the government an interest-free loan for that year.  Although for some folks, having the IRS save funds for them is the best alternative!

Q: What if I employ caregivers?

A: Many of our clients are at the point at which some amount of in-home or personal care is necessary.  Sometimes, that comes in the form of caregivers hired via an agency, or directly by the family.  Often, friends of the family or local neighbors, or church members offer their time to assist.  What you pay the caregiver might be tax deductible in some cases.

But, please note this very important fact.  If you pay that person for services, then you are also required by IRS rules to withhold taxes and submit that to the IRS on a quarterly basis.  The caregivers are actually “family employees” and should be treated correctly, from a wage and tax standpoint.  If you use an agency, they will take care of taxes.  If you hire them yourself, you will need to make the filings.

If you employ caregivers who are “independent contractors” then you must submit A “1099” form that specifies what you paid them.  Remember that the caregivers should be employees, not contractors.  But, if they ask you to pay on a 1099 basis, you still need to report and send them the right form.  They can use that form to self-report taxes.

Some people do not want the burden of wages and tax reporting.  Payment in cash “under the table” is common but presents a number of issues.  First of all, it is illegal according to the IRS and the NC Department of Revenue.  Secondly,  the employee caregiver will not receive workers compensation or insurance, and if s/he has an accident at your home, you may be liable personally for a large settlement.  Third, such cash payments cannot be hidden from Medicaid and if you need Medicaid in the future those cash payments may actually create a sanction penalty.  So, our advice is that you always pay caregivers W2 wages.

Maximize your tax savings

Adjusting your withholding is just one of many strategies you can use to save on your taxes.  As you might guess, the TCJA also changed tax laws that have the potential to affect your estate planning strategies as well. In light of this, when the 2018 tax season wraps up, we’ll be pairing up with one of our trusted local CPAs to bring you support and guidance that you can use to maximize your tax savings in 2019 and beyond. Contact us as your Personal Family Lawyer® to learn more.

Downsizing your aging loved ones

The Downsizing Generation: How to Handle a Surplus of Stuff When a Loved One Ages

The baby boomer generation is aging – and downsizing – which means that more and more adult children will be tasked with going through their loved one’s belongings to decide what to do with everything. As more and more people downsize after retirement, china sets, furniture, heirlooms, and other belongings are often left behind and unwanted.

Traditionally, these items have been passed down to the next generation. But today, the next generation has different needs, tastes, and wants. As a result, there is a surplus of “stuff” baby boomers don’t need or have room for, and their adult children don’t want. Maybe that includes you.

This is an all too common problem with a few helpful solutions.

The thought of tossing a lifetime of belongings in the trash is more than many can bear, which explains the advent of the senior move management industry. Today, there are a plethora of professionals who can help your loved one go through each item to decide what should be kept, what should be given away, and what should go to charity or donated.

The cost of this professional service is very reasonable for typical estates, but can be up to $5,000 for a large estate.  Regardless of the cost, it eases the burden on the adult children and ensures the loved one’s wishes are listened to and honored.

Too Many Donations?

Interestingly, as the baby boomer generation ages, charities and nonprofits that typically accept used furniture and other belongings are faced with the burden of too much stuff. The dated styles baby boomers preferred during their prime don’t fit the tastes and needs of today’s generation.

The current generation views belongings like furniture and dishes as functional and more disposable, better suited to their urban, fast-paced lives where minimalism and portability are more prized than sentimentality and tradition.

What is an heirloom?

Another way to decrease the time and effort it takes to dispose of all your belongings is to be very clear about what you consider to be heirlooms and valuable items by indicating in your will, or in a separate writing ancillary to your will, exactly what’s important to you and what isn’t.  In that way, your family can see, in the Will, what matters to you and they can handle things accordingly.

One of my clients has gone through several downsizes … each time losing items that were of sentimental value.  In the next version, she will end up in skilled nursing, with very little space.  To the extent possible she has been able to give away most of the items she cared about.  That softens the loss.  But, be aware that some aging elders will have significant grief associated with the loss of sentimental items.  Try to give things away that matter to your loved ones so you can enjoy their delight at receiving a treasured item.

Have the conversation!

Most importantly, talk to your children or other heirs to see what they want and don’t want. And to make sure they know what’s important to you, and what isn’t. The more you can communicate about this now with your loved ones, the better.

You may be surprised to discover that many family fights that break up families aren’t over money at all, but over mom and dad’s personal property … the fight arises because there were no clear instructions.

Plan ahead

As more baby boomers age and non-profits turn away dated donations,  the need for thoughtful estate planning is greater than ever. A comprehensive estate plan can ensure your belongings either go to those who will cherish them or to charities that will benefit from them.

Contact us!

If you need assistance with finding the right resource, or just a way to facilitate a conversation about possessions, we are here to help.

Call us at 919-883-2800, or schedule a meeting.

What is an IRA Trust? And, do you need one?

Could an IRA Trust Benefit Your Family?
Four reasons you should consider the IRA Trust.

Unlike most of your assets, individual retirement accounts (IRAs) do not pass to your family through a will. Instead, upon your death, your IRA will pass directly to the people you named via your IRA beneficiary designation form. Unless you take extra steps, the named beneficiary can do whatever he or she wants with the account’s funds once you’re gone. The beneficiary could cash out some or all of the IRA and spend it, invest the funds in other securities, or leave the money in the IRA for as long as possible.

For a number of reasons that we’ll address more below, you might not want your heirs to receive your retirement savings all at once. One way to prevent this is to designate your IRA into a trust.

But you can’t just use any trust to hold an IRA; you’ll need to set up a special type of revocable trust specifically designed to act as the beneficiary of your IRA upon your death.

Such a trust is referred to by different names—IRA Living Trust, IRA Inheritor’s Trust, IRA Stretch Trust—but for this article, we’re simply going to call it an IRA Trust.

IRA Trust benefits

IRA Trusts offer a number of valuable benefits to both you and your beneficiaries. If you have significant assets invested through one or more IRA accounts, you might want to consider the following advantages of adding an IRA Trust to your estate plan.

1. Protection from creditors, lawsuits, & divorce

While IRAs are typically protected from creditors while you’re alive, once you die and the funds pass to your beneficiaries, the IRA can lose its protected status when your beneficiary distributes the funds to him or herself.

One way to counteract this is to leave your retirement assets through an IRA Trust, in which case your IRA funds will be shielded from creditors as long as they remain in the trust.

IRA Trusts are also useful if you’re in a second (or more) marriage and want your IRA assets to be used for the benefit of your surviving spouse while he or she is living, and then to distributed or be held for the benefit of your children from a prior marriage after your surviving spouse passes. This would ensure that your surviving spouse cannot divert retirement assets to a new spouse, to his or her children from a prior marriage, or lose them to a creditor before the funds ultimately get to your children.

2. Protection from the beneficiary’s own bad decisions

In addition to outside creditors, an IRA Trust can also help protect the beneficiary from his or her own poor money-management skills and spending habits. If the IRA passes to your beneficiary directly, there’s nothing stopping him or her from quickly blowing through the wealth you’ve worked your whole life to build.

When you create an IRA Trust, however, you can add restrictions to the trust’s terms that control when the money is distributed as well as how it is to be spent. For example, you might stipulate that the beneficiary can only access the funds at a certain age or upon the completion of college. Or you might stipulate that the assets can only be used for healthcare needs or a home purchase. With our support, you can get as creative as you want with the trust’s terms.

3. Tax savings

One of the primary benefits of traditional IRAs is that they offer a period of tax-deferred growth, or tax-free growth in the case of a Roth IRA. Yet if the IRA passes directly to your beneficiary at your death and is immediately cashed out, the beneficiary can lose out on potentially massive tax savings. Not only will the beneficiary have to pay taxes on the total amount of the IRA in the year it was withdrawn, but he or she will also lose the ability to “stretch out” the required minimum distributions (RMDs) over their life expectancy.

A properly drafted IRA Trust can ensure the IRA funds are not all withdrawn at once and the RMDs are stretched out over the beneficiary’s lifetime. Depending on the age of the beneficiary, this gives the IRA years—potentially even decades—of additional tax-deferred or tax-free growth.

4. Minors

If you want to name a minor child as the beneficiary of your IRA, they can’t inherit the account until they reach the age of majority. So without a trust, you’ll have to name a guardian or conservator to manage the IRA until the child comes of age. When the beneficiary reaches the age of majority, he or she can withdraw all of the IRA funds at once—and as we’ve seen, this can have serious disadvantages.

With an IRA Trust, however, you name a trustee to handle the IRA management until the child comes of age. At that point, the IRA Trust’s terms can stipulate how and when the funds are distributed. Or the terms can even ensure the funds are held for the lifetime of your beneficiary, to be invested by your beneficiary through the trust.

Find out if an IRA Trust is right for you

While IRA Trusts can have major benefits, they’re not the best option for everyone. Laws regarding IRA Trusts vary widely from state to state, so in some places, they’ll be more effective than others. Plus, the value of IRA Trusts also varies greatly depending on your specific family situation, so not everyone will want to put these trusts in place.

If you have more than $150,000 in retirement accounts, consult with us as your Personal Family Lawyer® to find out if an IRA Trust is the most suitable option for passing on your retirement savings to benefit your family.

Estate Planning Must-Haves for Unmarried Couples

4 Estate Planning Must-Haves for Unmarried Couples

Estate planning is often considered something you only need to worry about once you get married. But the reality is every adult, regardless of age, income level, or marital status, needs to have some fundamental planning strategies in place if you want to keep the people you love out of court and out of conflict.

In fact, estate planning can be even more critical for unmarried couples. Regardless if you’ve been together for decades and act just like a married couple, you likely aren’t viewed as one in the eyes of the law. And in the event one of you becomes incapacitated or when one of you dies, not having any planning in place can have disastrous consequences.

If you’re in a committed relationship and have yet to get—or even have no plans to get—married, the following estate planning documents are an absolute must:

Wills and trusts

If you’re unmarried and die without planning, the assets you leave behind will be distributed according to your state’s intestate laws to your family members: parents, siblings, and possibly even other, more distant relatives if you have no living parents or siblings. North Carolina’s laws would provide NO protection for your unmarried partner. Given this, if you want your partner to receive any of your assets upon your death, you need to – at the very least – create a will.

A will details how you want your assets distributed after you die, and you can name your unmarried partner, or even a friend, to inherit some or all of your assets. However, certain assets like life insurance, pensions, and 401(k)s, are not transferred through a will. Instead, those assets will go to the person named in the beneficiary designation, so be sure to name your partner as beneficiary if you’d like him or her to inherit those assets.

However, there could be an even better way.

Although wills and beneficiary designations offer one way for your unmarried partner to inherit your assets, they’re not always the best option. First and foremost, they do not operate in the event of your incapacity, which could occur before your death. In that case, your partner may not have access to needed assets to pay bills, or he or she could potentially even be kicked out of your home by a family member appointed as your guardian during your incapacity.

Moreover, a will requires probate, a court process that can take quite some time to navigate. And finally, assets passed by beneficiary designation go outright to your partner, with no protection from creditors or lawsuits. To protect those assets for your partner, you’ll need a different planning strategy.

Trusts may be the best option

A far better option would be to place the assets you want your partner to inherit in a living trust. First off, trusts can be used to transfer assets in the event of your incapacity, not just upon your death. Trusts also do not have to go through probate, saving your partner precious time and money.

What’s more, leaving your assets in a continued trust that your partner could control would ensure the assets are protected from creditors, future relationships, and/or unexpected lawsuits.

Consult with us for help deciding which option – a will or trust – is best suited for passing on your assets.

Durable power of attorney

When it comes to estate planning, most people focus only on what happens when they die. However, it’s just as important – if not even more so – to plan for your potential incapacity due to an accident or illness.

If you become incapacitated and haven’t legally named someone to handle your finances while you’re unable to do so, the court will pick someone for you. And this person could be a family member, who doesn’t care for or want to support your partner, or it could be a professional guardian who will charge hefty fees, possibly draining your estate.

Since it’s unlikely that your unmarried partner will be the court’s first choice, What can you do?  If you want your partner (or even a friend)  to manage your finances in the event you become incapacitated, you would grant your partner (or friend) a durable power of attorney.

Durable power of attorney is an estate planning tool that will give your partner immediate authority to manage your financial matters in the event of your incapacity. He or she will have a broad range of powers to handle things like paying your bills and taxes, running your business, collecting government benefits, selling your home, as well as managing your banking and investment accounts.

Granting a durable power of attorney to your partner is especially important if you live together, because without it, the person who is named by the court could legally force your partner out with little to no notice, leaving your partner homeless.

Most people tend to view estate planning as something only married couples need to worry about. However, estate planning can be even more critical for those in committed relationships who are unmarried.

Because your relationship with one another is frequently not legally recognized, if one of you becomes incapacitated or when one of you dies, not having any planning can have disastrous consequences. Your age, income level, and marital status makes no difference – every adult needs to have some fundamental planning strategies in place if you want to keep the people you love out of court and out of conflict.

So far, we discussed wills, trusts, and durable power of attorney. Next, we’ll look at two more must-have estate planning tools, both of which are designed to protect your choices about the type of medical treatment you’d want if tragedy should strike.

Medical power of attorney

In addition to naming someone to manage your finances in the event of your incapacity, you also need to name someone who can make health-care decisions for you. If you want your partner to have any say in how your health care is handled during your incapacity, you should grant your partner medical power of attorney.

This gives your partner the ability to make health-care decisions for you if you’re incapacitated and unable to do so yourself. This is particularly important if you’re unmarried, seeing that your family could leave your partner totally out of the medical decision-making process, and even deny your him or her the right to visit you in the hospital.

Don’t forget to provide your partner with HIPAA authorization within the medical power of attorney, so he or she will have access to your medical records to make educated decisions about your care.

Living will

While medical power of attorney names who can make health-care decisions in the event of your incapacity, a living will explains how your care should be handled, particularly at the end of life. If you want your partner to have control over how your end-of-life care is managed, you should name them as your agent in a living will.

A living will explains how you’d like important medical decisions made, including if and when you want life support removed, whether you would want hydration and nutrition, and even what kind of food you want and who can visit you.

Without a valid living will, doctors will most likely rely entirely on the decisions of your family or the named medical power of attorney holder when determining what course of treatment to pursue. Without a living will, those choices may not be the choices you—or your partner—would want.

We can help

If you’re involved in a committed relationship – married or not – or you just want to make sure that the people you choose are making your most important life-and-death decisions, consult with us as your Personal Family Lawyer® to put these essential estate planning tools in place.

With our help, we can support you in identifying the best planning strategies for your unique needs and situation. Contact us today to get started with a Family Wealth Planning Session.

Call 919-883-2800

And, if you have friends who are unmarried, ask them to call us too!

 

How will you pay for your funeral?

Use Estate Planning to Ensure Your Family Isn’t Stuck Paying For Your Funeral

The cost of a funeral is averaging $7,000 and steadily increasing each year; a client recetly told me they had paid $16,00 for a “no-frills” funeral.  I beleive that every estate plan should include enough money to cover this final expense. Yet it isn’t enough to simply set aside money in your will.

Your family won’t be able to access money left in a will until your estate goes through probate, which can last months or even years. Since most funeral providers require full payment upfront, this means your family will likely have to cover your funeral costs out of pocket, unless you take proper action now.

If you want to avoid burdening your family with this hefty bill, you should use planning strategies that do not require probate. Here are a few options:

Prepaid funeral plans
Many funeral homes let you pay for your funeral services in advance, either in a single lump sum or through installments. Also known as pre-need plans, the funeral provider typically puts your money in a trust that pays out upon your death, or buys a burial insurance policy, with itself as the beneficiary.

While such prepaid plans may seem like a convenient way to cover your funeral expenses, these plans sometimes can have serious drawbacks. As mentioned earlier, if the funeral provider buys burial insurance, you’re likely to see massive premiums compared to what the plan actually pays out. And if they use a trust, the plan might not actually cover the full cost of the funeral, leaving your family on the hook for the difference. Plus, your money might be at risk if the funeral provider closes or is bought out by another company.  In North Carolina, the funeral plans are usually held by the state in a pool of such policies that give you excellent protection.

I like this type of plan, but not all groups do.  In fact, the Funeral Consumers Alliance (FCA), a nonprofit industry watchdog group, advises against purchasing such plans. The only instance where prepaid plans are a good idea, according to the FCA, is if you are facing a Medicaid spend down before going into a nursing home. This is because prepaid funeral plans funded through irrevocable trusts are not considered a countable asset for Medicaid eligibility purposes.  This is limited in North Carolina to $15,000 in most situations.

If you’re looking to buy a prepaid funeral plan in order to qualify for Medicaid, be sure to consult with us first, as not all pre-paid funeral plans are actually Medicaid compliant, even if the funeral home says they are. Moreover, if the irrevocable trust is not set up correctly, it may violate Medicaid’s look-back period, delaying your eligibility.  I am licensed to sell insurance products including pre-need funeral trusts, if that seems like a fit for your family.

Insurance
You can purchase a new life insurance policy or add extra coverage to your existing policy to cover funeral expenses. The policy will pay out to the named beneficiary as soon as your death certificate is available. But you’ll likely have to undergo a medical exam and may be disqualified or face costly premiums if you’re older and/or have health issues. I do recommend various kinds of insurance for most families, and can assist you in tailoring it for your needs.

There is also burial insurance specifically designed to cover funeral expenses (different from the funeral trusts I mentioned above). Also known “final expense,” “memorial,” and “preneed” insurance, such policies do not require a medical exam. However, you’ll often pay far more in premiums than what the policy actually pays out.

Because of the sky-high premiums and the fact such policies are sold mostly to the poor and uneducated, consumer advocate groups like the Consumer Federation of America consider burial insurance a bad idea and even predatory in some cases.

But whatever insurance or trust-based plan you have … make sure your family knows about it! These policies are often never cashed in because the family didn’t know they existed.

Payable-on-death accounts
Many banks offer payable-on-death (POD) accounts, sometimes called Totten Trusts, that you can set up to fund your funeral expenses. The account’s named beneficiary can only access the money upon your death, but you can deposit or withdraw money at any time.

A POD does not go through probate, so the beneficiary can access the money once your death certificate is issued. POD accounts are FDIC-insured, but such accounts are treated as countable assets by Medicaid, and the interest is subject to income tax.

Another option is to simply open a joint savings account with the person handling your funeral expenses and give them rights of survivorship. However, this gives the person access to your money while you’re alive too, and it puts the account at risk from their future creditors.

What can happen?  We know one client who lost the money in a joint account she shared with her granddaughter over a single bad business decision. The granddaughter was sued over a lease default, and when she lost the case, her creditors were able to go after the joint account.

Living trusts
With us as your Personal Family Lawyer®, you don’t need to buy a pre-built trust from a funeral provider. We can create a customized living trust that allows you to control the funds until your death and name a successor trustee, who is legally bound to use the trust funds to pay for your funeral expenses exactly as the trust terms stipulate.

With a living trust, you can change the terms at any time and even dissolve the trust if you need the money for other purposes. Alternatively, if you need an irrevocable trust to help qualify for Medicaid, we can create that too and help you ensure the trust stays totally compliant with all of Medicaid’s requirements.

Don’t needlessly burden your family
To help decide which option is best suited for your particular situation, consult with us as your Personal Family Lawyer®. We can put an estate plan in place that includes adequate funding to ensure your funeral services are handled just as you wish—and your family isn’t forced to foot the bill.

Improve your family relationships

4 Ways Estate Planning Can Improve Relationships with Loved Ones

With the holiday season just past, you probably spent lots of time with your family and friends. During these moments, you were likely reminded of just how important these relationships are. And as we grow older, you begin to realize how precious little time we have to spend with one another.

Given life’s fleeting nature, using this time with family to talk about estate planning is vital for ensuring you and your loved ones will be provided and cared for no matter what happens. Though death and incapacity can be uncomfortable subjects to discuss, with a comprehensive plan in place, you’ll almost certainly experience a huge sense of relief and peace, knowing this critical task has been discussed and documented.

Planning Builds Communication

Though you might not realize it, estate planning also has the potential to enhance your relationship with loved ones in some major ways.

Planning requires you to closely consider your relationships with family and friends – past, present, and future – like never before. Indeed, the process can be the ultimate forum for heartfelt communication and prioritizing what matters most in life.

Communicating clearly about what you want to happen in the event of your incapacity or death (and asking your loved ones what they want to happen) can foster a deeper bond and sense of intimacy than just about anything else you can do.

Here are just a few of the valuable ways estate planning can improve the relationships you cherish most:

1) It shows you sincerely care

Taking the time and effort to carefully plan for what will happen to you in the event of your incapacity or when you die is a genuine demonstration of your love. It would be far easier to do nothing and simply let your family and friends figure it out for themselves. After all, you won’t be around to deal with any of the fallout.   Some of my clients choose that approach, but most, like you, want to plan it for the family.

Planning in advance, though, shows that you truly care about the welfare of your loved ones, even when you’re no longer around to benefit from their love and companionship. Such selfless concern and forethought equates to nothing less than a final expression of your unconditional love.

2) It inspires honest communication about difficult issues

Sitting down and having an honest discussion about life’s most taboo subjects – incapacity and death – is almost certain to bring you and your loved ones closer. By forcing you to face immortality together, planning has a way of highlighting what’s really important in life – and what’s not.

In fact, our clients consistently say that after going through our estate planning process they feel more connected to the people they love the most. And they also feel more clear about the lives they want to live during the short time we have here on earth.

Planning offers the opportunity to talk openly about matters you may not have even considered. When it comes to choices about distributing assets and naming executors and trustees, you’ll have a chance to engage in frank discussions about why you made the choices you did.

While this can be uncomfortable, clearly communicating your feelings and intentions is crucial for maintaining healthy relationships. In the end, it might just be the first step in actively addressing and healing any problems that may be lurking under the surface of your relationships.

3) It builds a deep sense of trust and respect

Whether it’s the individuals you name as your children’s legal guardians or those you nominate to handle your own end-of-life care, estate planning shows your loved ones just how much you trust and admire them. What greater honor can you bestow upon another than putting your own life and those of your children in their hands?

Though it’s often challenging to verbally express how much you love your family and friends, estate planning demonstrates your affection in a truly tangible way. And once these people see exactly how much you value them, it can foster a deepening of your relationship with one another.

4) It creates a lasting legacy

While estate planning is primarily viewed as a way to pass on your financial wealth and property, it can offer your loved ones much more than just financial security. When done right, it lets you hand down the most precious assets of all – your life stories, lessons, and values.

The wisdom and experience you’ve gained during your lifetime are among the most treasured gifts you can give. Left to chance, these gifts are likely to be lost forever. In light of this, we’ve built in a process, known as Family Wealth Legacy Passages, for preserving and passing on these intangible assets.

With this service, which is included in every estate plan we create, we guide you to create a customized recording in which you share your most insightful memories and experiences with those you’re leaving behind. Family Wealth Legacy Passages can not only ensure you’re able to say everything that needs to be said, but that your legacy carries on long after you—and your money—are gone.

The heart of the matter

With us as your Personal Family Lawyer®, we can help guide and support you in having these intimate discussions with your loved ones. And as our Family Wealth Legacy Passages service shows, we offer a wide array of customized planning options designed to enrich your family and friends with far more than just material wealth.

With our help, estate planning doesn’t have to be a dreary affair. When done right, it can put your life and relationships into a much clearer focus and ultimately be a tremendously uplifting experience for everyone involved. Contact us today to learn more.

Protecting your pets using Pet Trusts

Pet Trusts Offer Protection for Your Furry Family

If you’re an animal lover and have a pet of your own, you likely consider your pet to be a member of the family. And since your furry friends can provide protection, emotional support, and unconditional love, such consideration is often well deserved.

In stark contrast, the law considers your pet nothing more than personal property. That means that without plans in place, your pet will be treated just like your couch or vacuum in the event of your death or incapacity.

For example, if you die without including any provisions for your pet’s care in your estate plan and none of your family or friends volunteer to take your pet in, your faithful companion will likely end up in an animal shelter.

While you can leave money for the care or your pet in a will, there will be no continuing oversight to ensure your pet (and the money you leave for its care) will be cared for as you wish, if you do it that way.  In fact, a person who is named as the guardian of your pet in your will could drop the animal off at the shelter and use the money to buy a new TV—and face no penalties for doing so.

What’s more, a will is required to go through a court process known as probate, which can last for years and leave your pet in limbo during that entire time. And a will only goes into effect upon your death, so if you’re incapacitated by accident or illness, it will be useless for protecting your pet.

Pet trusts

Given these limitations, the best way to ensure your animal companions are properly taken care of in the event of your death or incapacity might be to create a pet trust.

Pet trusts go into effect immediately and allow you to lay out detailed, legally binding rules for how the funds in the trust can be used. Pet trusts can cover multiple pets, work in cases of incapacity as well as death, and they remain in effect until the last surviving animal dies.

Here are a few of the most important things to consider when setting up a pet trust:

Caregivers: The most important decision when creating a pet trust is naming the caretaker. The caretaker will have custody of your pet and is responsible for your pet’s daily care for the remainder of your pet’s life. As with naming a guardian for your children, make certain you choose someone you know will watch over and love your pet just as you would.

Consider the caretaker’s physical ability—naming someone elderly to raise your Great Dane puppy might be asking too much. Also make certain your pet fits in with the caretaker’s family members and other pets. Discuss your wishes ahead of time with a potential caretaker—never assume they’re willing to take on the responsibility.

In case your first-choice for caretaker is unable to take in your pet, name at least one or two alternates. If you don’t know any suitable caregivers, there are a variety of charitable groups that can provide for your pet if you’re no longer able to.

Trustees: Trustees are tasked with managing the trust’s funds and ensuring your wishes for the animal’s care are carried out in the manner the trust spells out. Given the potential conflict of interest, you may consider naming someone other than the caregiver as trustee.

In this way, you now have two people who are invested in the care of your pet – and money – are properly handled.

Caretaking instructions: At the very least, your caretaking instructions should outline your pet’s basic requirements: dietary needs, exercise regimen, medications, and veterinary care. Be sure you think about all of your pet’s future needs, including extra services like grooming, boarding, and walking.

Beyond basic care, you can also lay out instructions for just about any other special treatment you want your furry friend to receive. From sleeping arrangements and yummy treats to weekly visits to the park and favorite toys, a pet trust can provide Fido and Fluffy with whatever lifestyle you wish for them.

Finally, don’t forget to address what you want done at the end of your pet’s life, such as burial, cremation, or memorial services.

Funding: When determining how much money to put aside for your pet’s care, you should carefully consider the pet’s age, health, and care needs. Remember, you’re covering the cost of caring for the animal for the rest of its life, and even basic expenses can add up over time.

But most pet owners want their beloved pets to receive more than just the bare necessities. Given this, make sure you carefully calculate the costs for any special treatments or services you include in the trust and leave enough money to pay for them.

And if you end up leaving more money behind than needed, you can always name a remainder beneficiary, such as a family member or charity, to inherit any funds not spent on the pet.

Do right by your furry family

Consult with us as your Personal Family Lawyer® for help creating a pet trust. We can make certain that you have all of the necessary terms included in your estate plan to ensure your pet receives the kind of love and care it deserves when you’re no longer around to provide it. Contact us for more information.

We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why we offer a Family Wealth Planning Session, ™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

Protecting Your Digital Assets

Don’t Forget to Include Your Digital Assets In Your Estate Plan

If you’ve created an estate plan with us or anyone, it likely includes traditional wealth and assets like finances, real estate, personal property, and family heirlooms. But unless your plan also includes your digital assets, there’s a good chance this online property will be lost forever following your death or incapacity.

What’s more, even if these assets are included in your plan, unless your executor and/or trustee knows the accounts exist and how to access them, you risk burdening your family and friends with the often lengthy and expensive process of locating and accessing them. And depending on the terms of service governing your online accounts, your heirs may not be able to inherit some types of digital assets at all.

With our lives increasingly being lived online, our digital assets can be quite extensive and extremely valuable. Given this, it’s more important than ever that your estate plan includes detailed provisions to protect and pass on such property in the event of your incapacity or death.

Types of digital assets

Digital assets generally fall into two categories: those with financial value and those with sentimental value.

Those with financial value typically include cryptocurrency like Bitcoin, online payment accounts like PayPal, domain names, websites and blogs generating revenue, as well as other works like photos, videos, music, and writing that generate royalties. Such assets have real financial worth for your heirs, not only in the immediate aftermath of your death or incapacity, but potentially for years to come.

Digital assets with sentimental value include email accounts, photos, video, music, publications, social media accounts, apps, and websites or blogs with no revenue potential. While this type of property typically won’t be of any monetary value, it can offer incredible sentimental value and comfort for your family when you’re no longer around.

Owned vs licensed

Though you might not know it, you don’t actually own many of your digital assets at all. For example, you do own certain assets like cryptocurrency and PayPal accounts, so you can transfer ownership of these in a will or trust. But when you purchase some digital property, such as Kindle e-books and iTunes music files, all you really own is a license to use it. And in many cases, that license is for your personal use only and is non-transferable.

Whether or not you can transfer such licensed property depends almost entirely on the account’s Terms of Service Agreements (TOSA) to which you agreed (or more likely, simply clicked a box without reading) upon opening the account. While many TOSA restrict access to accounts only to the original user, some allow access by heirs or executors in certain situations, while others say nothing about transferability.

Carefully review the TOSA of your online accounts to see whether you own the asset itself or just a license to use it. If the TOSA states the asset is licensed, not owned, and offers no method for transferring your license, you’ll likely have no way to pass the asset to anyone else, even if it’s included in your estate plan.

To make matters more complicated, though your heirs may be able to access your digital assets if you’ve provided them with your account login and passwords, doing so may actually violate the TOSA and/or privacy laws. In order to legally access such accounts, your heirs will have to prove they have the right to access it, a process which up until recently was a major legal grey area. Fortunately, a growing number of states are adopting a law that helps clarify how your digital assets can be accessed in the event if your death or incapacity.

The Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act

The Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act, which has been adopted in most states so far, including North Carolina (NCGS Section 36.F) lays out guidelines under which fiduciaries, such as executors and trustees, can access these digital accounts. The Act allows you to grant a fiduciary access to your digital accounts upon your death or incapacity, either by opting them in with an online tool furnished by the service provider or through your estate plan.

The Act offers three-tiers for prioritizing access. The first tier gives priority to the online provider’s access-authorization tool for handling accounts of a decedent. For example, Google’s “inactive account manager” tool lets you choose who can access and manage your account after you pass away. Facebook has a similar tool that allows you to designate someone as a “legacy contact” to manage your personal profile. If an online tool is not available or if the decedent did not use it, the law’s second tier gives priority to directions given by the decedent in a will, trust, power of attorney, or other means. If no such instructions are provided, then the third tier stipulates the provider’s TOSA will govern access.

As long as you use the provider’s online tool – if one is available – and/or include instructions in your estate plan, your digital assets should be accessible per your wishes in states that have adopted the law. It is likely that all 50 states will adopt this law so even if the law isn’t on the books in a state in which you later reside, you should include these provisions in all documents when planning.

Your Estate plan and related documents

When you work with us, we incorporate these provisions in your wills(s), trusts(s), and financial powers of attorney as part of your plan. Be sure that you contact us as you Personal Family Lawyer® if you have any questions about your online property or how to include it in your estate plan.

Today, estate planning encompasses not just tangible property like finances and real estate, but also digital assets like cryptocurrency, blogs, and social media.

With so much of our lives now lived online, it’s vital you put the proper estate planning provisions in place to ensure your digital assets are effectively protected and passed on in the event of your incapacity or death. However, because many types of online assets have only been in existence for a handful of years, there are very few laws governing how they should be dealt with through estate planning. And due to their virtual and often anonymous nature, just locating and accessing some of these assets can be extremely difficult for those you leave behind.

Best practices for including digital assets in your estate plan

If you’re like most people, you probably own numerous digital assets, some of which likely have significant monetary and/or sentimental value. Other types of online property may have no value for anyone other than yourself or be something you’d prefer your family and friends not access or inherit. To ensure all of your digital assets are accounted for, managed, and passed on in exactly the way you want, you should take the following steps:

1. Create an inventory:

Start by creating a list of all your digital assets, including the related login information and passwords. Password management apps such as LastPass can help simplify this effort. From there, store the list in a secure location, and provide detailed instructions to your fiduciary about how to access it and get into the accounts. Just like money you’ve hidden in a safe, if no one knows where it is or how to unlock it, these assets will likely be lost forever.

2. Back up assets stored in the cloud:

If any of your digital assets are stored in the cloud, back them up to a computer and/or other physical storage device on a regular basis, so fiduciaries and family members can access them with fewer obstacles. That said, don’t forget to also include the location and login info of these cloud-based assets in case you don’t have a chance—or forget—to back them all up.

3. Add your digital assets to your estate plan:

Include specific instructions in your will, trust, and/or other estate planning documents about the heir(s) you want to inherit each asset, along with how you’d like the accounts managed in the future, if that’s an option. Some assets might be of no value to your family or be something you don’t want them to access, so you should specify that those accounts and files be closed and/or deleted by your fiduciary.

Do NOT provide the specific account info, logins, or passwords in your estate planning documents, which can be easily read by others. This is especially true for wills, which become public record upon your death. Keep this information stored in a secure place, and let your fiduciary know how to find and use it.

As you may know from working with me, I love technology! And, even for probate and directions to your heirs, there is technology to assist! Consider a service such as Directive Communication Systems to support you here. It’s also a good idea to include terms in your estate plan allowing your fiduciary to hire an IT consultant if necessary. This will help him or her manage and troubleshoot any technical challenges that come up, particularly with highly complex and/or encrypted assets.

4. Limit access:

In your plan, you should also include instructions for your fiduciary about what level of access you want him or her to have. For example, do you want your executor to be able to read all of your emails and social media posts before deleting them or passing them on to your heirs? If there are any assets you want to limit access to, we can help you include the necessary terms in your plan to ensure your privacy is honored.

5. Include relevant hardware:

Don’t forget that your estate plan should also include provisions for any physical devices—smartphones, computers, tablets, flash drives—on which the digital assets are stored. I use the Ledger Nano S for my currency.  Having quick access to this equipment will make it much easier for your fiduciary to access, manage, and transfer the online assets.

6. Check service providers’ access-authorization tools:

Carefully review the terms and conditions for your online accounts. Some service providers like Google, Facebook, and Instagram have tools in place that allow you to easily designate access to others in the event of your death. If such a function is offered, use it to document who you want to have access to these accounts. Just make certain the people you named to inherit your digital assets using the providers’ access-authorization tools match those you’ve named in your estate plan. If not, the provider will probably give priority access to the person named with its tool, not your estate plan.

Truly comprehensive estate planning

With technology rapidly evolving, it’s critical that your estate planning strategies evolve at the same time to adapt to this changing environment. With us as your Personal Family Lawyer®, we can help you update your plan to include not only your physical wealth and property, but all of your digital assets, too.

Don’t Transfer Ownership of Your House to Your Kids Before You Read This

With the cost of long-term care (LTC) skyrocketing, you may be concerned about your (or your elderly parents’) ability to pay for lengthy stays in assisted living and/or a nursing home. Such care can be massively expensive, with the potential to overwhelm even the well-off.

Because neither traditional health insurance nor Medicare will pay for LTC, some people are looking to Medicaid to help cover this cost. To become eligible for Medicaid, however, you must first exhaust nearly every penny of your savings.

Given this, you may have heard that if you transfer your house to your adult children, you can avoid selling the home if you need to qualify for Medicaid. You may think transferring ownership of the house will help your eligibility for benefits and that this strategy is easier and less expensive than handling your home (and other assets) through estate planning.

However, transferring your home to the kids is a big mistake on several levels.

It can not only delay—or even disqualify—your Medicaid eligibility, it can also lead to numerous other problems.

Medicaid Changes
In February 2006, Congress passed the Deficit Reduction Act (DRA), which included a number of provisions aimed at reducing Medicaid abuse. One of these was a five-year “look-back” period for eligibility.

This means that before you can qualify for Medicaid, your finances will be reviewed for any “uncompensated transfers” of your assets within the five years preceding your application. If such transfers are discovered, it can result in a penalty period that will delay your eligibility.

For every $6,810 worth of uncompensated transfers made within this five-year window (the current North Carolina monthly divisor), your Medicaid benefits will be withheld for one month.  But, any transfers made beyond that five-year period will not be penalized.

So, if you transfer your house to your children and then need LTC within five years, it may significantly delay your qualification for Medicaid benefits—and possibly prevent you from ever qualifying. Rather than taking such a risk, consult with us to discuss safer and more efficient options to help cover the rising cost of LTC such as long-term care insurance.

A potentially huge tax burden

Another drawback to transferring ownership of your home is the potential tax liability for your child. If you’re elderly, you’ve probably owned your house for a long time, and its value has dramatically increased, leading you to believe that by transferring your home to your child, he or she can make a windfall by selling it.   Read more if you want to know about selling the home after qualifying for Medicaid.

Unfortunately, if you do that, she or he will have to pay capital gains tax on the difference between your home’s value when you purchased it and your home’s selling price at the time it’s sold by your child. Depending on the home’s value, these taxes can be astronomical.

In contrast, by transferring your home at the time of your death, your child will receive what’s known as a “step-up in basis.” It’s one of the only benefits of death, and it allows your child to pay capital gains taxes when he or she sells your home, based only on the difference between the value of the home at the time of inheritance and its sales price, rather than paying taxes based on the home’s value at the time you bought it.

We can help you choose the most advantageous estate-planning strategy to minimize your beneficiaries’ tax liability and ensure they get the most out of their inheritance.

Debt, Divorce, Disability, and Death

There are numerous other reasons why transferring ownership of your house to your child is a bad idea. If your child has significant debts, his or her creditors can make claims against the property to recoup what they’re owed, potentially forcing your child to sell the home to pay those debts.

Divorce is another problematic issue. If your child goes through a divorce while the house is in his or her name, the home may be considered marital property. Depending on the outcome of the divorce, this may force your child to sell the home or pay his or her ex a share of its value.

The disability or death of your child can also lead to trouble. If your child becomes disabled and seeks Medicaid or other government benefits, having the home in his or her name could compromise eligibility, just like it would your own. And if your child dies before you and has ownership of the house, the property could be considered part of your child’s estate and be passed on to your child’s heirs, creating a problem for you.

No substitute for proper estate planning
Given these potential problems, transferring ownership of your home to your children as a means of “poor-man’s estate planning” is almost never a good idea. Instead, with us as your Personal Family Lawyer®, we can help you find better ways to qualify for Medicaid and other benefits to offset the hefty price tag of long-term care and also keep your family out of court and out of conflict in the event of your incapacity or when you die.

We offer an array of estate planning strategies to protect all of your assets, while also enabling you to better afford whatever long-term healthcare services you might require.

Contact us today to learn more.

Call 919-883-2800, or schedule an appointment.

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