Before you die…

Or this post could have been titled “Ease the burden of loved ones.”  Because I’m an estate planning attorney, the “Before you die…” advice I’d typically give would be to have a will or living trust plan prepared.  I certainly always recommend that advice.  This post, however, is different.

I recently read an article I loved, “You Need to Make a ‘When I Die’ File–Before It’s Too Late.”  The article speaks to the side of estate planning that I rarely participate, and that’s the grieving family part of planning for what happens after you die.  I help my clients get all the documents they need, and advise on decisions that need made.  What struck me about the suggestions in this article though were actions to take that speak to people you love.  The article adds two items to the typical estate planning checklist, i.e., an ethical will and letters to loved ones: “[W]here a legal will transfers assets, an ethical will transfers immaterial things: your life lessons and values.”

An ethical will supplants a traditional will, and might be used to explain why you chose one child to serve as executor over the other child, or why you chose close friends as guardians for your child over your siblings.  “Letters to loved ones” is self-explanatory, and I highly recommend it if you have children who might have difficulty remembering you if you die when they are young.

As the author states:

The point of all this is to make a difficult thing like dying or loving someone who is dying less difficult. In that sense, creating a When I Die file is an act of love. It will always be too soon to tell your story and let people know how much they mean to you, until it is too late.

If you have any questions about estate planning, email me at julie@juliemillslaw.com.

Has a nursing home asked you to sign?

Your mother, father, aunt, etc., is moving to a nursing home.  You accompany your dad, for example, so he won’t be going through this alone, and he might need help completing paperwork.  The nursing home asks, or requires, that you sign as hi—STOP!  Don’t sign!

The nursing home asks you to sign as your dad’s “personal representative.”  Or to sign as guarantor.  Or to sign anything.  What you are likely doing is signing an agreement to be held financially responsible if your dad, through his insurance or Medicaid, does not or cannot pay his bill.  This might happen if his Medicaid application is not approved, or if insurance denies his claims, or any number of reasons.

But, the nursing home simply wants you to sign as the “responsible relative,” the person who will take steps to see that Medicaid or insurance pays your mother’s nursing home bills, right?  Or as the point person who will track down information, call the insurance company, provide information, right?  You would certainly agree to help your mother this way.  The problem is that you have unwittingly agreed to also be financially responsible to the nursing home for your mother’s bills.  Just ask Judy Andrien.

This practice by nursing homes occurs regularly, at least according to what I see and hear.  It happened to my family member, where the nursing home left his sibling lying out in the hallway on a gurney until the family member signed as “personal representative,” assuring this family member that “oh, it’s just a formality–we never pursue payment.”  They did pursue payment.

It is illegal under the federal “Nursing Home Reform Law” (summarized here) to require or request someone to sign as a guarantor as a condition of someone (usually a family member) being admitted, or of being permitted to continue to stay.  Nursing homes often get “crafty,” however, by asking family to voluntarily sign, whether as personal representatives, the responsible party, guarantor, etc.  “It’s just a formality….”

As an attorney, I have handled matters where stunned family members come to me with 5-figure bills from the nursing home, where the nursing home says that they signed as a financially-responsible party and now the bill is due.  At this point, one of the the only arguments is that my client did not sign voluntarily which can be a difficult argument to make, not to mention costly in attorney fees.

My advice if you accompany someone other than your spouse to a nursing home to be admitted?  Do not sign anything.  Period.

If you have any questions, contact me at julie@juliemillslaw.com.

Steps to take when a Veteran dies

If your deceased loved one was a Veteran of United States military service, there are steps you should take to know what documents to gather, and to get an idea of what benefits are available.  These are beyond the typical steps taken when a loved one dies, such as choosing a funeral home, obtaining the death certificate, gathering insurance policies. Funeral homes are experienced in knowing what to do, and what is available, for veterans’ funerals, but gathering what documents you need and knowing what is available is very helpful during a period when you and loved ones are grieving.

The following are a few steps to get you started.  Gather:

  1. A copy of the Veteran’s DD-214 (or discharge papers);
  2. Claim number for the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA).  Start with (800) 827-1000 if you are unsure where to find it.
  3. Social security numbers of the deceased veteran, spouse, and children.
  4. Contact information for your local National Cemetery or local VFW, DAV, VVA or American Legion group, if burial will be at a military cemetery.  You can request a “Military Funeral and Honor Guard” where two uniformed representatives of the deceased’s military branch will attend the funeral, serve as pall bearers, play Taps.
  5. Contact information for your local VA Hospital to arrange pick up of any VA-issued medical equipment such as wheelchairs, prosthetic limbs, hospital beds, if you would like to return them.

The VA also provides burial flags, headstones, medallion markers.  This post just touches on the benefits available to Veterans and their survivors.  To learn more, visit the VA’s website, and download the document “Planning Your Legacy: VA Survivors and Burial Benefits Kit.”

If you have any questions about Veterans’ or survivor benefits, feel free to email me at julie@juliemillslaw.com.

Have you been named Executor? Trustee? Possibly both?

When clients have estate plans prepared, they must choose people they trust to fill certain roles in estate plan documents.  The biggest shoes to fill are the executor of a will, and the trustee of a trust (if the client is getting a trust).  The duties for both roles are different because the documents do different things.  Sometimes the same person fills both roles, if that’s what the client wants and if the person they choose agrees.

Executor

An “executor” is the person named in your Last Will and Testament to wrap up your affairs after you die.  You might be expected to:

  • Pay financial obligations including taxes of the decedent from estate assets
  • Manage the estate by possibly submitting a will for probate, gathering the decedent’s assets and holding them until they are sold or distributed
  • Contacting government institutions and agencies to stop benefit payments
  • Represent the estate in legal matters

The role of an executor typically lasts for 13 months or under in Ohio.   You are wrapping up someone’s affairs and distributing their assets as their will dictates.  Once bills are paid and assets are sold or distributed, your role ends.

Trustee

A “trustee” is the person named in your trust (often, a “revocable living trust”) to perform the duties stated in your trust.  You might be expected to:

  • Manage the assets in the trust, which might be monetary assets, a home, etc.
  • Distribute trust assets according to the terms of the trust.  Common terms include the trustee paying for a beneficiary’s college expenses, distributing portions of the assets of the trust at certain ages
  • Communicating with the beneficiaries

The role of a trustee lasts for the lifetime of the trust.  A trust ends once final distributions are made or assets are exhausted.  A trust can also be terminated, which mostly happens when the value of the assets of the trust make administering the trust impossible–the trust’s assets diminish in value to the point of the trust not being able to pay trustee fees or other expenses.

Both roles carry some amount of personal liability, impose fiduciary responsibility, and can be time consuming.  If you were named in either role, then the person creating the documents trusts you, your abilities and judgment.

If you have been named the executor or trustee in someone’s will or trust, and you have questions or need guidance, please email me at julie@juliemillslaw.com.

No will? The state has one for you and it might not accomplish what you want.

“Everyone has a will.  Either you prepared it, or your state did.”  It’s true–if you have not prepared your own last will and testament, then a state’s statute of descent and distribution (here is Ohio’s) kicks in when you die.  These state statutes prescribe who inherits your assets at your death.  So yes, everyone is covered by either their own will, or your state’s laws, for distributing your assets when you die.  The question becomes whether you want to decide who inherits your belongings, or whether you want the state to decide.

For example, in Ohio if you die intestate (with no will), here is how your assets are distributed.  My summary below doesn’t cover every situation possible–see the link above to the statute if your situation in Ohio is not included in scenarios below.  Note that children who are adopted are treated legally the same as biological children:

  • Spouse is alive:
    • all kids are yours and spouse’s: all to spouse
    • no kids with spouse or anyone: all to spouse
    • kids survive but none are with spouse: some to kids, some to spouse
    • kids survive but some with spouse, some not: some to kids, some to spouse
  • Spouse died before you:
    • kids survive: to kids or their lineal descendants (your grandkids, great grandkids, and on)
    • no kids or their lineal descendants survive: all to your parents or surviving parent
    • no kids/lineal descendants, no parents survive: to whole or half blood brothers and sisters, or to any of their lineal descendants
    • no kids/lineal descendants, no parents, no whole/half blood brothers and sisters or their lineal descendants survive: one-half to surviving maternal grandparents or survivor of them; one-half to paternal grandparents, or survivor of them
    • none of above are surviving: to lineal descendants of grandparents (e.g., your grandparents’ children and their descendants)
    • none of the above are surviving: to stepchildren, or to their lineal descendants.
  • If none of the above are surviving when you die, then your assets escheat (go to) the state.

If absolutely no one survives you, do you want the state to get your assets when they could have been donated to a charity, or to benefit a school program, or sold to provide funds for a food pantry?  Perhaps you have pets and would want your assets sold to provide for their care?  Perhaps you have a dear friend who you would want to receive your assets?  Designating something in a will accomplishes what you want to happen.  Assets escheating to the state is not as uncommon as people think.

Contact me at julie@juliemillslaw.com to discuss what you wish to happen to your assets at your death.

 

Misconceptions you might have with estate planning

I have heard all of these misconceptions mentioned, including just today.

  1.  The attorney who prepared my will must handle my probate.  No.  Many estate planning attorneys prepare wills with an eye toward being called upon to handle a probate if the client dies, but there is absolutely no requirement that the drafting attorney who prepared your will must handle your probate.  This includes if the attorney who prepared your will holds your original will for safekeeping.
  2. My will dispenses with all of my property. Some documents override a will.  If you have a will, and you leave all real (house, land) and personal property to John, yet you have a deed that is held somehow with Jane, Jane will get the house because she is on the deed, not John, even though your will gives it to John.  Generally, titled and deeded assets go to the person listed on the title, or beneficiary designation, or deed.  “I leave everything I own to Bob.”  At my death, I have a life insurance policy that lists Joanne on the beneficiary designation.  Who gets my life insurance?  Joanne.
  3. I had a trust prepared so I don’t have to worry about probate.  It is so frustrating to see clients come to me with trusts they had prepared (and paid a lot to have prepared), only to learn that the trusts are unfunded.  What the client has, then, is a stack of papers that likely will not do what was intended.  Funding your trust involves titling or deeding assets to your trust.  You can accomplish this by naming your trust on beneficiary designations so that asset goes into your trust at your death, or having a “transfer on death affidavit” prepared that puts your home into your trust at your death.  For example, you would have a deed prepared granting your home from Jenny Jones to “The Jenny Jones Revocable Living Trust.”   However you accomplish it, a discussion of “funding your trust” should be a critical part of planning from your attorney.  If you have a trust prepared and then never prepare a new deed putting your home into your trust, and you die, your home will likely require a probate to be opened, defeating one of the important reasons for having a trust prepared (avoiding probate, privacy).
  4. A will (last will and testament) is different than a “living will.”  A last will and testament is what we think of as a “will”–we state who is to inherit what, we name a guardian for our kids if they’re young, we name an executor.  On the other very different hand, a “living will” is a healthcare document stating whether we want artificial life support if (1) we are terminally ill and death is imminent, or (2) if we are in a permanently unconscious state (i.e., brain dead).  This is popularly known as “pulling the plug.”

Contact me at julie@juliemillslaw.com to discuss estate planning.