Estate Planning: Planning for death to get the assets to whom you want, when you want, the way you want, with the least amount of taxes and legal fees possible.
Elder Law: Planning for disability to get the persons you want to handle your affairs and to protect your assets from being depleted for long-term care.
Introduction to Estate Planning and Elder Law
Practicing estate planning and elder law is one of the most enjoyable and professionally rewarding careers an attorney may choose. Imagine a practice area where your clients respect your knowledge and treat you with kindness and courtesy. They pay your fees in a timely fashion and tell their friends how much they have enjoyed working with you and your firm. At the same time, you are rarely facing the pressure of a deadline, much less an adversarial attorney on the other side of a matter trying to best you. In most instances, you are acting in the capacity of a counselor at law (trusted advisor) rather than an attorney at law (professional representative).
We spend our days meeting with clients, discussing their lives and their families and addressing their fears and concerns. Through our knowledge, training, experience and imagination, we craft solutions, occasionally elegant ones, to the age old problem of passing assets from one generation to another as quickly and painlessly as possible. At the same time, we also seek to protect those assets from being depleted by taxes, legal fees and nursing home costs to the extent the law allows.
The end result of this process is a client who feels safe and secure in the knowledge that, in the event of death or disability, they have all their bases covered. Having achieved peace of mind that their future is well planned and in good hands, they can get on with the business of enjoying their lives. For the attorney estate planning, a happy and satisfied client has been added to the practice and another potentially lifelong and mutually rewarding relationship has begun. Let’s look at the strategies and techniques we use to achieve this enviable state of affairs.
Major Issues Facing Senior Clients Today
One of the ways that we help clients is in setting up a comprehensive plan so they may avoid court proceedings upon death or in the event of disability. Trusts are used in place of wills for older persons since they do not require court proceedings to settle the estate. Trusts also avoid the foreign probate proceeding required for property owned in another state, known as ancillary probate. This saves the family time in settling the estate as well as the high costs of legal proceedings. In addition, since revocable living trusts, unlike wills, take effect during the grantor’s lifetime, the client may stipulate which persons take over in the event of their disability. Planning ahead helps maintain control in the family or with trusted advisors and avoids a situation that may not be in the client’s best interest. For example, in the event of a disability where no plan has been put in place, an application to the court may be required in order to have a legal guardian appointed for the disabled person. This may not be the person the client would have chosen. In such a case, assets may not be transferred to protect them from being spent down for nursing home costs without court permission, which may or may not be granted.
Another area in which we assist the client is in saving estate taxes, both state and federal, for married couples by using the two-trust technique. Assets are divided as evenly as practicable between each of the spouse’s trusts. While the surviving spouse has the use and enjoyment of the deceased spouse’s trust, the assets of that trust bypass the estate of the surviving spouse and go directly to the named beneficiaries when the second spouse dies. Tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars, or more, in potential estate taxes may be saved, depending on the size of the estate. Furthermore, the revocable living trust avoids the two probates that would occur were the clients to use wills, as the couple’s estate must be settled after the death of each spouse in order to save estate taxes. We also help to protect assets from being depleted due to nursing home costs. Irrevocable Medicaid trusts may be established, subject to a five-year look-back period, to protect the client’s home and other assets from having to be spent down due to the high cost of nursing home care. We use Medicaid asset and transfer rules to protect assets in the event a client requires nursing home care but has done no pre-planning. Through the use of Medicaid qualifying annuities, promissory notes, and housing and care agreements, significant assets may be protected despite the five-year look-back, even when the client may be on the nursing home doorstep.
Five Steps to Estate Planning for Seniors
1. Understanding the Family Dynamics
The first step in an elder law trusts and estates matter is to gain an understanding of the client’s family dynamics. If there are children, which is usually the case, we need to determine whether or not they are married. Is it a first or second marriage? Do they have any children from a previous marriage or do their spouses? What kind of work do they do, and where do they live? Do they get along with each other and with the parent clients? We are looking to determine which family members do not get along with which others and what the reasons may be. This goes a long way toward helping us decide who should make medical decisions and who should handle legal and financial affairs. Should it be one of them or more than one? How should the estate be divided? Is the client himself in a second marriage? Which children, if any, are his, hers, or theirs? Sometimes all three instances may occur in the same couple. Here, further exploration of the family functioning will be needed as the potential for hurt feelings, conflicts of interest, and misunderstandings multiplies. In addition, great care must be taken to develop a plan for management, control, and distribution of the estate that will not only be fair to the children from a previous marriage but will be seen to be fair as well. At times, the assistance of the professional advisor in acting as trustee may be invaluable in helping to keep the peace between family members. Finally, this step will also flesh out whether there are any dependents with special needs and which family members and assets might be best suited to provide for such children.
2. Reviewing Existing Estate Planning Documents
The second step in an elder law trusts and estates matter is to review any prior estate planning documents the client may have, such as a will, trust, power of attorney, health care proxy and living will, to determine whether they are legally sufficient and reflect the client’s current wishes or whether they are outdated. Some basic elder law estate planning questions are also addressed at this time such as:
a. Is the client a US citizen? This will impinge on the client’s ability to save estate taxes.
b. Is the client expecting to receive an inheritance? This knowledge helps in preparing a plan that will address not only the assets that the client has now but what they may have in the future.
c. Does the client have long-term care insurance? If so, the elder law attorney will want to review the policy and determine whether it provides an adequate benefit considering the client’s other assets and income, whether it takes inflation into account, and whether it is upgradable. This will allow the practitioner to decide whether other asset protection strategies may be needed now or later.
d. Does the client need financial planning? Many clients that come into the elder law attorney’s office have never had professional financial advice or are dissatisfied with their current advisors. They may need help understanding the assets they have or with organizing and consolidating them for ease of administration. They may also be concerned with not having enough income to last for the rest of their lives. The elder law attorney will typically know a number of capable financial planners who are experienced with the needs and wishes of the senior client, including (1) secure investments with protection of principal, and (2) assets that tend to maximize income.
3. Reviewing the Client’s Assets
The third step is to obtain a complete list of the client’s assets, including how they are titled, their value, whether they are qualified investments, such as IRA’s and 401(k)’s and, if they have beneficiary designations, who those beneficiaries are. Armed with this information, the advisor is in a position to determine whether the estate will be subject to estate taxes, both state and federal, and may begin to formulate a strategy to reduce or eliminate those taxes to the extent the law allows. This will often lead to shifting assets between spouses and their trusts, changing beneficiary designations, and, with discretion, trying to determine which spouse might pass away first so as to effect the greatest possible tax savings. Ideally, the attorney should have the client fill out a confidential financial questionnaire prior to the initial consultation.
4. Developing the Estate Plan
The fourth step is to determine, with input from the client, who should make medical decisions for the client if they are unable to and who should be appointed to handle legal and financial affairs through the power of attorney in the event of the client’s incapacity. Next, we will consider what type of trust, if any, should be used, whether a simple will would suffice, who should be the trustees (for a trust) or executors (for a will), and what the plan of distribution should be. In order to avoid a conflict, the trustees who are chosen in lieu of the grantor should be the same persons named on the power of attorney. At this point, great care should also be taken to ensure that the feelings of the heirs will not be hurt. Good estate planning looks at the client’s estate from the heirs’ point of view as well as the client’s. For example, if there are three children, it may be preferable that one be named as trustee or executor, as three are usually too cumbersome and if the client chooses only two, then they are leaving one out. If there are four or five children, we prefer to see two trustees or executors chosen. This way, the pressure will be reduced on just the one having to answer to all the others. More importantly, the others will feel far more secure that two siblings are jointly looking after their interests.