Advice for the End of a Not-So-Normal Year–Review your Will, Trust, Healthcare Documents

In a “normal” year it would be good advice to suggest that you review your estate plan, which could be your will, your trust if you have one, your healthcare documents, among other documents, at the end of the year.  With 2020 and what is not a “normal” year, this advice takes on more meaning.  Not surprisingly, much of the advice given in my blog post is due to the COVID-19.  Generally, COVID-19 or not, you should review your estate plan each year. 

Reason #1: Things Change

Our assets and family dynamics change over time. This is inevitable and applies to everyone.  Review how your assets might have changed and see if the changes are covered in your documents.  Did you move, and deed your new house to your trust?  If family dynamics have changed, did you check to see if your will needs changed also?  The biggest change would be divorce, and while some documents treat your ex as having predeceased you, some will still treat him or her as a beneficiary if the former spouse is not removed from the document.  Other dynamics that might affect your choices are the death of someone you’ve named as a beneficiary or as a fiduciary (such as an executor of your will); the birth of a child or grandchild; the divorce of others such as the guardians you have named for your children. 

The pandemic has created several changes for many of my clients, particularly the composition of households. Now, households are accommodating the needs of elderly family members moving in rather than moving into assisted living, college kids attending school from home, and other changes.  These changes can affect who you choose to list as a power of attorney now that some family members might be living closer or further away, how you structure what happens to your house if you die since your household might include parents or others who might wish to remain in the home. 

Another change is the law, specifically the SECURE Act.  Your 401k or IRA will be affected by the SECURE Act, it is just a matter of “how.”  The Act significantly changed the timing of distributions for inherited IRAs and changed rules regarding your beneficiaries.  Check to see who is listed as beneficiary and whether that should be changed, whether a conduit trust is still beneficial, and other considerations.

Reason #2:  New Considerations for Healthcare Documents

The pandemic has created new considerations that might affect your thoughts about your healthcare documents, specifically, your living will (whether you want artificial life support or not) and your healthcare power of attorney.  These are critical documents that are necessary in managing your medical affairs should you become sick or incapacitated.

First, consider who you have listed in these documents to make decisions for you.  Generally, people listed should be able to be “bedside.”  You might have listed your brother across the country as your healthcare power of attorney, but will he be able to travel to get to you?   Would a trusted friend or other family member who lives close to you be a more appropriate choice during a pandemic when there are greater restrictions on, and requirements prior to, travel?

Second, clients have expressed concern regarding their living will and whether the fact that they state “no artificial life support” means they will not be put on a ventilator if they need one, if diagnosed with COVID-19.  The Ohio living will document states that, if death is only being prolonged by someone in a terminal condition or permanently unconscious state, then two physicians can determine to end artificial life support, or “pull the plug.”  With COVID-19, a ventilator is used as a course of treatment, not to prolong death, and will be used to treat you.  The living will document does not prohibit artificial means for breathing or keeping someone alive; rather, the document reflects your wishes to permit doctors to cease using artificial life support if no reasonable course of treatment will help and death is simply being prolonged. 

Conclusion:

It is a gift to your family to plan what you wish to happen if you are unable to take care of your medical or financial affairs, and to plan what you want to happen to your assets when you die.  I hear so often about how difficult these decisions are for family to make during a period when they are grieving your death, or scrambling to figure out how to pay your bills if you are incapacitated.  The pandemic might have many people wanting to discuss anything but death and incapacity, but it has also forced everyone to consider “what if?” with their own mortality, and consequently their family’s future. 

If you would like to discuss wills, trusts, healthcare documents, or any estate planning questions, feel free to email me at julie@juliemillslaw.com.  I am happy to help you plan and prepare.

Will you have to pay your parent’s nursing home bill?

I have written before on how common it is for family members to unwittingly make themselves liable for a nursing home bill when they sign admission papers for a loved one going into a nursing home (“Has a nursing asked you to sign?”). Although it is against the law (42 C.F.R. 483.15(a)(3)) to require a 3rd party to take financial responsibility for the bills of a nursing home as a condition to admitting that person into the facility, it happens frequently. Mom is sitting there, about to move into the facility, Daughter is with the admissions employee who is asking her to “sign here” so Mom can move in. I had it happen to my family member, and I’ve represented clients who signed as a “Family Representative” only to discover they actually signed to accept financial responsibility for all outstanding nursing home bills.

A recent Ohio case finally sheds some light on the law and specific steps that might instruct how to avoid becoming liable for a loved one’s nursing home bills. The case is Village at the Greene v. Smith, 2020-Ohio-4088, and I’ll summarize here how it is applicable to readers facing the possibility of helping a family member or loved one move into a nursing home.

Despite it being illegal, many nursing homes have provisions in their admissions agreements where the accompanying family member (or sometimes a family friend) signs as “Family Representative,” or “Responsible Party” described as someone who agrees to “secure financial information such as Medicaid and Medicare.” These agreements typically include third-party guarantor, or personal guarantee, language. If you sign as the “Family Representative” when you are admitting your mom, or dad, or whomever, into the facility, you’ve likely agreed to be responsible for all unpaid nursing home bills.

In the Village Green case above, Son accompanied Father to the nursing home when he was being admitted. Son correctly refused to sign in his individual capacity, as Family Representative or any other form. Son did sign, however, in his capacity as Power of Attorney for his father. Essentially, he signed on behalf of his father. This would look like “John Doe, POA for Dave Doe” or power of attorney, or agent, etc., instead of signing as just “John Doe.” Eventually Father died and had unpaid nursing home bills, where the nursing facility then brought suit against Son. The appeals court determined that Son, who signed as power of attorney for Father and did not sign in his individual capacity, could not be held liable for his father’s unpaid nursing home bills.

ADVICE

  1. Do not sign your name anywhere on a nursing home admissions agreement, or any additional or ancillary paperwork, unless you are certain it is for contact purposes only. See #3 below.
  2. If possible, have the person being admitted sign the document. If the person is competent but simply physically unable to sign, they can sign an X or something indicating signing. If this isn’t possible, try to have had a power of attorney prepared prior to admission into the nursing home. If you do this, then sign everything as power of attorney. “Jane Doe, POA.” This includes email signatures: “Thank you for the update. Jane Doe, POA.”
  3. If you don’t have power of attorney, and find yourself in a position where you are being asked for your signature and given assurances that you won’t be held liable, write after your name “My signature is not a personal guarantee for financial responsibility.” Get a copy immediately of the signed document, and note the name of the person who told you that you would not be held liable financially. In the situation with my family member, he was told by the admissions employee that “Oh, this is just a formality so we have a family member to contact. We never pursue payment.” Yes, the nursing home pursued the five-figure payment.

Helping a parent or family member through the nursing home admission process is stressful and emotional. Don’t set yourself up for future stress by unknowingly agreeing to be financially responsible for the nursing home bill. Unwinding yourself out of liability can be nearly impossible, and it is far better to not incur liability from the start.

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.

What is a trust?

What is a “trust”?  What does it do?

There are three parties involved in a trust.  First is the person who makes the trust, called the settlor or grantor.  Second is the person who is to benefit from the trust, called the beneficiary (or beneficiaries).  Third is the person who manages the trust, called the trustee.  A trust is a contract, with terms determined by the grantor to govern how the trustee manages the trust, terms to decide how the assets in the trust are to be distributed to beneficiaries, terms to govern who is included in the class of “beneficiaries” if the beneficiaries are not clearly defined, terms to decide when the trust should terminate, among others.  Because a trust is a private contract, the settlor or grantor can decide upon whatever terms and conditions he or she wants in the trust, unless they are illegal or against public policy.

Essentially, a trust is a way for someone to control his or her assets “from the grave.”  For comparison, with a last will and testament, assets are distributed once the deceased’s debts are paid by his estate.  The administration timeframe with a will is usually no longer than thirteen months.  With a trust, the trust holds assets (typically by re-titling or re-deeding an asset) and the trustee makes distributions according to the terms of the trust, which could be at staggered ages (25, 30, 35), or to pay for college, etc., and could last for years.

There are several different types of trusts used for several different purposes.  Most of my clients use trusts to provide for children or grandchildren (pay for college, provide distributions at key ages in life), or they have a child or grandchild with a disability and they want to leave assets to their disabled loved one to maintain their quality of life, without jeopardizing government benefits.   Other common trusts include credit shelter trusts, life insurance trusts, domestic asset protection trusts, firearms (“gun”) trusts, pet trusts, IRA trusts, among many others.

Trusts have certain benefits that clients find attractive.  Unlike wills, which are public documents and can reveal private information including finances, a trust is not a public document.  Privacy can be a big concern for those wishing to keep certain things private, such as business owners and their finances.  Trusts, if properly funded, avoid the probate process.  In some situations, trusts can protect assets from creditors.  Particularly important for many of my clients (as mentioned above), trusts permit someone to control the distribution of their assets from the grave, often for years.

This blog post is a very general and condensed explanation of the benefits of a trust.  If you are interested in learning more about how a trust might benefit you, email me at julie@juliemillslaw.com or contact me via http://www.juliemillslaw.com.

Trustees for special needs trusts: “You must choose, but choose wisely.”

There are special considerations when choosing a trustee for a special needs trust.  As with any trust, the trustee should be responsible and trustworthy.  If the trust is for the benefit of someone with a disability, you have added issues to factor into your choice that are critical to family relationships, safeguarding assets in the trust, and maintaining the beneficiary’s eligibility for government benefits.

In my practice it is typically the parents or grandparents of a child with a disability who creates a special needs trust.  The natural choice to my clients for a trustee is someone who knows and cares about the child–usually a family member.  Oftentimes, however, the family member is unaware of what is involved with administering a trust for a disabled person, which could lead to legal and financial problems for the trust and the trustee.  Professional trustees (financial institution, etc.) are viewed with skepticism because the child often has specific, individual needs unfamiliar to someone who doesn’t know the child, and their fees can seem excessive.

ISSUES TO CONSIDER

  1.  Trustee will need to learn about government benefits, trust taxation, money management.  There are rules and regulations that the trustee will need to know.  Government benefits are complex, and maintaining them requires diligence.  Certain actions can jeopardize the beneficiary’s receipt of government benefits.   There are tax rules for trusts, and assets in the trust that need managed.  Your trustee should prepare to become very knowledgeable in unfamiliar areas of government benefits, trust taxation, and trust asset management.
  2. Trustee can be held liable.  A trustee of any trust can be held liable for “wrongdoing,” even for mistakes.  With a special needs trust, mistakes from a well-meaning family member serving as a trustee could result in the loss of crucial government benefits for the disabled beneficiary, most notably, medical insurance (Medicaid).  Unfortunately, family-member trustees often do not purchase trustee liability insurance, making them vulnerable if they make an improper distribution that jeopardizes receipt of benefits, or if they fail to file taxes or submit accountings correctly. (I highly recommend trustee liability insurance for trustees.)
  3. Family relationships might become strained.  If Uncle John is serving as the trustee of his niece Jane’s special needs trust, it is John who decides whether a distribution should be made.  If Uncle John and Niece Jane have always had a good relationship, and suddenly he is in a position of having to disappoint Jane by deciding against her request for something, their relationship might become strained.  Additionally, if John is a future beneficiary in the trust if Jane dies, an inherent conflict could also strain relationships.  Perhaps John is declining Jane’s distribution requests so as to keep as much money in the trust as possible for him if Jane dies?  Whether true or not, such a conflict has the potential of creating familial tension.
  4. Cost.  One of the main complaints with professional trustees is their fee.  For some financial institutions, annual trustee fees can range from 1-5% of the value of the assets of the trust.  This might not be excessive when you consider costs associated with a family member serving as trustee.  Due to liability and time concerns, it is advisable for the trustee to hire an attorney to advise on government benefits and maintaining eligibility.  A CPA is advisable due to tax filings and tax considerations with trusts.  An investment professional is suggested to meet the trustee’s fiduciary obligation to maintain trust assets.  The family-member trustee can be compensated a reasonable fee for his or her services as trustee.  It’s the trust that pays for these services.  A professional trustee’s fees might be comparable to the cumulative fees associated with having a family member serve as trustee–if so, then I suggest factoring in other considerations above when choosing a trustee.

There is a middle ground.  For clients who want the personal involvement of a family-member trustee, but want the expertise of a professional trustee, I recommend designating the family member as “trust protector” and a professional trustee as the trustee of the trust. The trust protector safeguards the financial and other interests of the beneficiary, and can take legal action on behalf of the beneficiary if there are problems with the trustee.  The professional trustee has the financial ability to compensate the trust if mistakes are made, and the expertise to reduce the chance of making mistakes.

If you have questions about special needs trusts, special needs planning, choosing a trustee, or the role of a trust protector, please contact me by email at julie@juliemillslaw.com, or visit my website for other ways to reach me.  Planning for the future of a loved one with a disability is both critical and complex!

 

 

 

Trusts–4 things they do that you might not know

A trust is an estate planning tool where the grantor (person who creates the trust) transfers assets to the trust to be managed by someone they choose as a trustee.  Transferring assets to a trust is accomplished in many ways, but largely by re-deeding or titling.  For example, John Doe transfers the deed to his house from “John Doe” to the “John Doe Trust.”

Here are 4 things trusts do that you might not know:

  1. Protect beneficiaries. Children and grand-children are typical beneficiaries in estate planning to protect their futures. Trusts can preserve assets to children by distributing certain amounts at certain ages, such as distributing one-third of the assets at age 25, another chunk at 30, another final chunk at 40 or any age.  Staggering distributions to a child ensures they are taken care of to an extent through a certain period in their life.  If you have only a will, assets go to beneficiaries once they reach 18.
  2. Provide for beneficiaries with special needs. People with special needs often need government benefits such as Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for healthcare and necessities. Special needs trusts ensure that a disabled beneficiary can have assets without disqualifying him or her from receiving government benefits.
  3. Provide for pets. Trusts can ensure the care of your pets by naming people (a caregiver) to care for your pets, and providing funds to ensure that your pets receive care.  The Humane Society of the United States estimates that over 100,000 pets are taken to shelters each year after an owner dies, and in areas with large elderly populations, half the pets in shelters end up there due to their owner’s death.
  4. Encourage certain values. Trusts can provide incentives for pursuing a post-secondary education, encourage community service or productivity, support home ownership, encourage long-term savings and planning.  You cannot condition distributions to beneficiaries on anything that violates public policy, but providing matching funds or financial support in certain circumstances can be a way to reward values that are important to you.

Contact me at julie@juliemillslaw.com to discuss setting up a trust.

Do you have a child with special needs? Avoid these 5 planning mistakes

Mistake #1:  Not preparing a stand-alone special needs trust that is in effect immediately.

Some attorneys incorporate a special needs trust for a disabled child into the parent’s estate plan, to take effect when the surviving parent dies.  This mistake can be costly.  If the child was to receive an inheritance from a relative when the parent is still alive, that gift would go to the child, and would become an asset that might interrupt the child’s receipt of benefits.

Mistake #2:  Naming the child individually instead of his or her trust on retirement and insurance beneficiary designations.

Naming the child individually on your beneficiary designations, instead of the child’s special needs trust, will result in the eventual inheritance going to the child outright instead of the child’s special needs trust.  The inheritance will then become a countable resource that will likely cause the child to lose certain benefits.

Mistake #3: Not telling family and others that a special needs trust exists.

For family (especially well-meaning grandparents) and others  who might include your child in their estate plan, they need to name the child’s trust as the beneficiary, and not the child.  They will not know to do this unless they are informed that a special needs trust exists.  As with Mistakes #s 1 and 2, any inheritance left outright to a child who receives benefits might jeopardize receipt of those benefits.

Mistake #4:  Opening a 529 plan.

Not to pick on grandparents again, but it is common for grandparents to open and fund 529 plans for their grandchildren.  This could be costly for a child with special needs.  If the child  does not go to college, and needs SSI or other benefits at age 18, assets in a 529 plan will likely disqualify the child from receiving benefits, at least until the assets in the plan are spent down.  The child would then have to reapply for benefits.

Mistake #5: Leaving no Letter of Intent.

A Letter of Intent is a comprehensive guide that you prepare for when you are unable to care fr your child, either due to your death or incapacity.  The guide is for the child’s caregivers to ensure a smooth transition in every aspect of their day and life after the surviving parent passes.  Change in routine is very difficult for many kids, particularly those with special needs.  Grieving the loss of a parent makes this transition even more difficult.  The Letter of Intent advises the caregiver of the child’s daily routine, activities, likes and dislikes, among many other things to ease a tough transition.

If you would like to discuss planning for your child with special needs, contact me at julie@juliemillslaw.com.