The Real Cost To Your Family: Not Planning For Incapacity

When it comes to estate planning, most people automatically think about taking legal steps to ensure the right people inherit their stuff when they die. And these people aren’t wrong.

Indeed, putting strategies in place to protect and pass on your wealth and other assets is a fundamental part of the planning equation. However, providing for the proper distribution of your assets upon your death is just one part of the process.

And it’s not even the most critical part.

Planning that’s focused solely on who gets what when you die is ignoring the fact that death isn’t the only thing you must prepare for. You must also consider that at some point before your eventual death, you could be incapcitated by accident or illness.

Like death, each of us is at constant risk of experiencing a devastating accident or disease that renders us incapable of caring for ourselves or our loved ones. But unlike death, which is by definition a final outcome, incapacity comes with an uncertain outcome and timeframe.

Incapacity can be a temporary event from which you eventually recover, or it can be the start of a long and costly event that ultimately ends in your death. Indeed, incapacity can drag out over many years, leaving you and your family in an agonizing limbo. This uncertainty is what makes incapacity planning so incredibly important.

In fact, incapacity can be a far greater burden for your loved ones than your death. This is true not only in terms of its potentially ruinous financial costs, but also for the emotional trauma, contentious court battles, and internal conflict your family may endure if you fail to address it in your plan. 

The goal of effective estate planning is to keep your family out of court and out of conflict no matter what happens to you. So if you only plan for your death, you’re leaving your family—and yourself—extremely vulnerable to potentially tragic consequences.

Where to start

Planning for incapacity requires a different mindset and different tools than planning for death. If you’re incapacitated by illness or injury, you’ll still be alive when these planning strategies take effect. What’s more, the legal authority you grant others to manage your incapacity is only viable while you remain alive and unable to make decisions about your own welfare.

If you regain the cognitive ability to make your own decisions, for instance, the legal power you granted others is revoked. The same goes if you should eventually succumb to your condition—your death renders these powers null and void.

To this end, the first thing you should ask yourself is, “If I’m ever incapacitated and unable to care for myself, who would I want making decisions on my behalf?” Specifically, you’ll be selecting the person, or persons, you want making your healthcare, financial, and legal decisions for you until you either recover or pass away.

You must name someone

The most important thing to remember is that you must choose someone. If you don’t legally name someone to make these decisions during your incapacity, the court will choose someone for you. And this is where things can get extremely difficult for your loved ones.

Although laws differ by state, in the absence of proper estate planning, the court will typically appoint a guardian or conservator to make these decisions on your behalf. This person could be a family member you’d never want managing your affairs, or a professional guardian who charges exorbitant fees. Either way, the choice is out of your hands.

Furthermore, like most court proceedings, the process of naming a guardian is often quite time consuming, costly, and emotionally draining for your family. If you’re lying unconscious in a hospital bed, the last thing you’d want is to waste time or impose additional hardship on your loved ones. And this is assuming your family members agree about what’s in your best interest.

For example, if your family members disagree about the course of your medical treatment, this could lead to ugly court battles between your loved ones. Such conflicts can tear your family apart and drain your estate’s finances. And in the end, the individual the court eventually appoints may choose treatment options, such as invasive surgeries, that are the exact opposite of what you’d actually want.

This potential turmoil and expense can be easily avoided through proper estate planning. An effective plan would give the individuals you’ve chosen immediate authority to make your medical, financial, and legal decisions, without the need for court intervention. What’s more, the plan can provide clear guidance about your wishes, so there’s no mistake or conflict about how these vital decisions should be made.

What won’t work

Determining which planning tools you should use to grant and guide this decision-making authority depends entirely on your personal circumstances. There are several options available, but choosing what’s best is something you should ultimately decide after consulting with an experienced lawyer like us.

That said, we can tell you one planning tool that’s totally worthless when it comes to your incapacity: a will. A will only goes into effect upon your death, and then it merely governs how your assets should be divided, so having a will does nothing to keep your family out of court and out of conflict in the event of your incapacity.

The proper tools for the job

There are multiple planning vehicles to choose from when creating an incapacity plan. And this shouldn’t be just a single document; instead, it should include a comprehensive variety of multiple planning tools, each serving a different purpose.

Though the planning strategies you ultimately put in place will be based on your particular circumstances, it’s likely that your incapacity plan will include some, or all, of the following:

A comprehensive healthcare directive: An advanced directive that grants an individual of your choice the immediate legal authority to make decisions about your medical treatment in the event of your incapacity. This document also may provide specific guidance about how your medical decisions should be made during your incapacity.

Durable financial power of attorney: A planning document that grants an individual of your choice the immediate legal authority to make decisions related to the management of your finances, real estate, and business interests.

Revocable living trust: A planning document that immediately transfers control of all assets held by the trust to a person of your choosing to be used for your benefit in the event of your incapacity. The trust can include legally binding instructions for how your care should be managed and even spell out specific conditions that must be met for you to be deemed incapacitated.

Don’t let a bad situation become much worse

You may be powerless to prevent your potential incapacity, but proper estate planning can at least give you control over how your life and assets will be managed if it does occur. Moreover, such planning can prevent your family from enduring needless trauma, conflict, and expense during this already trying time.

If you’ve yet to plan for incapacity, meet with us as you’re an attorney who focuses on this typ of planning right away. Tramm Law Firm, PLLC can counsel you on the proper planning vehicles to put in place, and help you select the individuals best suited to make such critical decisions on your behalf. If you already have planning strategies in place, we can review your plan to make sure it’s been properly set up, maintained, and updated. Contact us today to get started.

 5 Estate Planning Must-Dos if You’re Getting Divorced—Part 2

In the first part of this series, we discussed a couple of the most critical updates you must make to your estate plan if you’re getting divorced. Here, we’ll cover the last three of these must-do planning tasks.

Because getting divorced can be overwhelming on so many different levels, updating your estate plan often takes a back seat to other seemingly more-pressing priorities. But failing to update your plan for divorce can have potentially tragic consequences, some of which you may have never even considered before.

In fact, it’s critical that you update your plan not only after the divorce is final, but as soon as you know the split is inevitable. Until your divorce is final, your marriage is legally in full effect, so if you die or become incapacitated while the divorce is still ongoing and you haven’t updated your plan, your soon-to-be ex spouse could end up with complete control over your life and assets.

For example, if you suddenly die of a heart attack while the divorce is ongoing and never got around to changing your estate plan, it’s quite likely that your future ex would inherit everything. And if that’s not bad enough, if you were to become incapcitated in a car accident during the divorce, the very person you’re paying big money to legally remove from your life could be granted complete authority over all of your legal, financial, and healthcare decisions.

This is something your divorce attorney won’t think to bring up, but it’s literally one of the most critical matters you need to handle if you’re ending your marriage. Last week, we discussed the first two estate planning changes you must make—updating your power of attorney documents and beneficiary designations—and today we’ll share the remaining three.

3. Create a new will

You should create a new will as soon as you decide to get divorced, because once you file, you may not be able to change your will. Rethink how you want your assets divided upon your death. This most likely means naming new beneficiaries for any assets that you’d previously left to your future ex and his or her family. And unless it’s your wish, you’ll probably no longer want your ex—or any of his or her family—listed as your will’s executor or administrator, either.

Some states have community-property statutes that entitle your surviving spouse to a certain percentage of the marital estate upon your death, regardless of what’s in your will. This means if you die before the divorce is final, you probably won’t be able to entirely disinherit your surviving spouse through the new will. While each state has nuanced law related to this issue, the states that have community property are Louisiana, Arizona, California, Texas, Washington, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, and Wisconsin.

However, it’s almost certain you wouldn’t want him or her to get everything. Given this, you should update your will as soon as possible once divorce is inevitable to ensure the proper individuals inherit the remaining percentage of your estate should you pass away while your divorce is still ongoing.

And should you choose not to create a new will during the divorce process, don’t assume that your old will is automatically revoked once the divorce is final. State laws vary widely in regards to how divorce affects a will. In some states, your will is revoked by default upon divorce. While in others, unless it’s officially revoked, your entire will—including all provisions benefiting your ex—remains valid even after the divorce is final. In Minnesota, by default, a divorce automatically revokes a provision that leaves property to an ex-spouse.

In light of this legal landscape, it’s critical that you consult with us as soon as you know divorce is on the horizon. We can help you understand the law and how to best navigate it when creating your new will—whether you do so before or after your divorce is over.

4. Amend your existing trust or create a new one

If you have a revocable trust set up, you’ll want to review and update it, too. Like wills, the laws governing if, when, and how you can alter a trust during a divorce can vary, so you should do it as soon as legally possible. In addition to reconsidering what assets your ex-spouse should receive through the trust, you’ll probably want to replace him or her as a successor trustee if they are so designated.

And if you don’t have a trust in place, you should seriously consider creating one, especially if you have minor children. Trusts provide a wide range of powers and benefits unavailable through a will, and they’re particularly well-suited for blended families. Given the likelihood that both you and your spouse will eventually get remarried—and perhaps have more children—trusts are an invaluable way to protect and manage the assets you want your children to inherit.

By using a trust, for example, should you die or become incapacitated while your kids are minors, you can name someone of your choosing to serve as successor trustee to manage their money until they reach adulthood, making it impossible for your ex to meddle with their inheritance.

Beyond this key benefit, trusts afford you several other levels of enhanced protection and control not possible with a will. So you should at least discuss creating a trust with an experienced lawyer like us before ruling out the option entirely.

5. Revisit your plan once your divorce is final
During the divorce process, your main planning concern is limiting your soon-to-be ex’s control over your life and assets should you die or become incapacited before divorce is final. Given this, the individuals to whom you grant power of attorney, name as trustee, designate to receive your 401k, or add to your estate plan in any other way while the divorce is ongoing are often just temporary.

Once the divorce is final and your marital property has been divided up, you should revisit all of your estate planning documents and update them accordingly based on your new asset profile and living situation. From there, your plan should continuously evolve along with your life circumstances, particularly following major life events, such as getting remarried, having additional children, and/or when close family members pass away.

Don’t wait; act now!

Even though divorce can be one of life’s most difficult transitions, it’s vital that you make the time to update your estate plan during this trying time. I would welcome the opportunity to review your plan with you immediately upon realizing that divorce is unavoidable.

5 Estate Planning Must-Dos if You’re Getting Divorced—Part 1

Divorce can be traumatic for the whole family. Even if the process is amicable, it involves many tough decisions, legal hassles, and painful emotions that can drag out over several months, or even years.

That said, while you probably don’t want to add any more items to your to-do list during this trying time, it’s absolutely critical that you review and update your estate plan—not only after the divorce is final, but as soon as possible once you know the split is inevitable.

Even after you file for divorce, your marriage is legally in full effect until your divorce is finalized. That means if you die while the divorce is still ongoing and you haven’t updated your estate plan, your soon-to-be-ex spouse could end up inheriting everything. Maybe even worse, in the event you’re incapacitated before the divorce is final, your ex would be in complete control of your legal, financial, and healthcare decisions.

Given the fact you’re ending the relationship, you probably wouldn’t want him or her having that much control over your life and assets. If that’s the case, you must take action, and chances are, your divorce attorney is not thinking about these matters on your behalf.

While some state laws limit your ability to completely change your estate plan once your divorce has been filed, the following are a few of the most important updates you should consider making as soon as possible when divorce is on the horizon.

1. Update your power of attorney documents for healthcare, financial, and legal decisions

If you are incapacitated by illness or injury during the divorce, who would you want making life-and-death healthcare decisions on your behalf? If you’re in the midst of divorce, chances are you’ll want someone other than your soon-to-be ex making these important decisions for you. If that’s the case, you must take action. Contact us now; don’t wait.

Similarly, who would you want managing your finances and making legal decisions for you? In light of the impending split, you’ll most likely want to select another individual, particularly if things are anything less than friendly between the two of you. Again, you have to take action if you do not want your spouse making these decisions for you. Don’t wait, contact us if you know divorce is coming.

2. Update your beneficiary designations

Failing to update beneficiary designations for assets that do not pass through a will or trust, such as life insurance policies and retirement accounts, is one of the most frequent—and tragic—planning mistakes made by those who get divorced. If you get remarried following your divorce, for example, but haven’t changed your IRA beneficiary designation to name your new spouse, the ex you divorced 10 years ago could end up with your retirement savings upon your death.

That said, in most states, once either spouse files divorce papers with the court, neither party can legally amend their beneficiaries without the other’s permission until the divorce is final. Given this, if you’re anticipating a divorce, you may want to consider changing your beneficiaries prior to filing divorce papers. If your divorce is already filed, you should consult with us to see if changing beneficiaries is legal in your state—and in your best interest.

Finally, if naming new beneficiaries is not an option for you now, once the divorce is finalized it should be your number-one planning priority. In fact, put it on your to-do list right now. Let me know if I can help!

Next week, we’ll continue with part two in this series on the critical estate-planning updates you should make when divorce is inevitable.

4 Critical Estate Planning Tasks to Complete Before Going on Vacation

Spring break may be over but most of us are already looking forward to our summer vacations. Going on vacation entails lots of planning: packing luggage, buying plane tickets, making hotel reservations, and confirming rental vehicles. But one thing many people forget to do is plan for the worst. Traveling, especially in foreign destinations, means you’ll likely be at greater risk than usual for illness, injury, and even death.

In light of this reality, you must have a legally sound and updated estate plan in place before taking your next trip. If not, your loved ones can face a legal nightmare if something should happen to you while you’re away. The following are 4 critical estate planning tasks to take care of before departing.

Watching the sunset in Naples, Florida.

Watching the sunset in Naples, Florida.

1. Make sure your beneficiary designations are up-to-date

Some of your most valuable assets, like life insurance policies and retirement accounts, do not transfer via a will or trust. Instead, they have beneficiary designations that allow you to name the person (or persons) you’d like to inherit the asset upon your death. It’s vital you name a primary beneficiary and at least one alternate beneficiary in case the primary dies before you. Moreover, these designations must be regularly reviewed and updated, especially following major life events like marriage, divorce, and having children.

2. Create power of attorney documents
Outside of death, unforeseen illness and injury can leave you incapacitated and unable to make critical decisions about your own well-being. Given this, you must grant someone the legal authority to make those decisions on your behalf through power of attorney. You need two such documents: medical power of attorney and financial durable power of attorney. Medical power of attorney gives the person of your choice the authority to make your healthcare decisions for you, while durable financial power of attorney gives someone the authority to manage your finances. As with beneficiary designations, these decision makers can change over time, so before you leave for vacation, be sure both documents are up to date.

On vacation in Maui, Hawaii.

On vacation in Maui, Hawaii.

3. Name guardians for your minor children
If you’re the parent of minor children, your most important planning task is to legally document guardians to care for your kids in the event of your death or incapacity. These are the people whom you trust to care for your children—and potentially raise them to adulthood—if something should happen to you. Given the monumental importance of this decision, we’ve created a comprehensive system called the Kids Protection Plan that guides you step-by-step through the process of creating the legal documents naming these guardians. Even if the time is not right to implement a comprehensive estate plan, I would be happy to help you with this specific element before your next trip.  

4. Organize your digital assets
If you’re like most people, you probably have dozens of digital accounts like email, social media, cloud storage, and cryptocurrency. If these assets aren’t properly inventoried and accounted for, they’ll likely be lost forever if something happens to you. At minimum, you may want to write down the location and passwords for each account and ensure someone you trust knows what to do with these digital assets in the event of your death or incapacity. To make this process easier, consider using LastPass or a similar service that stores and organizes your passwords. However, tread carefully in this arena, as allowing or directing another person to log-in with your credential violates the terms of services of many websites and may even be against the law in certain circumstances. Contact me to discuss your specific situation.

Complete your vacation planning now
If you have a vacation planned, be sure to add these 4 items to your to-do list before leaving. And if you need help completing any of these tasks—or would simply like us to double check the plan you have in place—consult contact me immediately.

I recommend you complete these tasks at least 8 weeks before you depart. However, if your trip is sooner than that, call and let us know you need a rush Family Wealth Planning Session, and we’ll do our best to fit you in as soon as possible. Contact me today to get started. 

6 Questions to Consider When Selecting Beneficiaries For Your Life Insurance Policy—Part 2

In the first part of this series, we discussed the first three of six questions you should ask yourself when selecting a life insurance beneficiary. Here we cover the final half:

Selecting a beneficiary for your life insurance policy sounds pretty straightforward. But given all of the options available and the potential for unforeseen problems, it can be a more complicated decision than you might imagine.

For instance, when purchasing a life insurance policy, your primary goal is most likely to make the named beneficiary’s life better or easier in some way in the aftermath of your death. However, unless you consider all of the unique circumstances involved with your choice, you might actually end up creating additional problems for your loved ones.

Last week, we discussed the first three of six questions you should ask yourself when choosing a life insurance beneficiary. Here we cover the remaining three:

4. Are any of your beneficiaries minors?

While you’re technically allowed to name a minor as the beneficiary of your life insurance policy, it’s a bad idea to do so. Insurance carriers will not allow a minor child to receive the insurance benefits directly until they reach the age of majority.

If you have a minor named as your beneficiary when you die, then the proceeds would be distributed to a court-appointed custodian tasked with managing the funds, often at a financial cost to your beneficiary. And this is true even if the minor has a living parent. This means that even the child’s other living birth parent would have to go to court to be appointed as custodian if he or she wanted to manage the funds. And, in some cases, that parent would not be able to be appointed (for example, if they have poor credit), and the court would appoint a paid fiduciary to hold the funds.

Rather than naming a minor child as beneficiary, it’s better to set up a trust for your child to receive the insurance proceeds. That way, you get to choose who would manage your child’s inheritance, and how and when the insurance proceeds would be used and distributed.

5. Would the money negatively affect a beneficiary?
When considering how your insurance funds might help a beneficiary in your absence, you also need to consider how it might potentially cause harm. This is particularly true in the case of young adults.

For example, think about what could go wrong if an 18-year-old suddenly receives a huge windfall of cash. At best, the 18-year-old might blow through the money in a short period of time. At worst, getting all that money at once could lead to actual physical harm (even death), as could be the case for someone with substance-abuse issues.

To help mitigate these potential complications, some life insurance companies allow your death benefit to be paid out in installments over a period of time, giving you some control over when your beneficiary receives the money. However, as discussed earlier, if you set up a trust to receive the insurance payment, you would have total control over the conditions that must be met for proceeds to be used or distributed. For example, you could build the trust so that the insurance proceeds would be kept in trust for beneficiary’s use inside the trust, yet still keep the funds totally protected from future creditors, lawsuits, and/or divorce.

6. Is the beneficiary eligible for government benefits?

Considering how your life insurance money might negatively affect a beneficiary is absolutely critical when it comes to those with special needs. If you leave the money directly to someone with special needs, an insurance payout could disqualify your beneficiary from receiving government benefits.

Under federal law, if someone with special needs receives a gift or inheritance of more than $2,000, they can be disqualified for Supplemental Security Income and Medicaid. Since life insurance proceeds are considered inheritance under the law, an individual with special needs SHOULD NEVER be named as beneficiary.

To avoid disqualifying an individual with special needs from receiving government benefits, you would create a “special needs” trust to receive the proceeds. In this way, the money will not go directly to the beneficiary upon your death, but be managed by the trustee you name and dispersed per the trust’s terms without affecting benefit eligibility.

The rules governing special needs trusts are quite complicated and can vary greatly from state to state, so if you have a child who has special needs, meet with us to ensure you have the proper planning in place, not just for your insurance proceeds, but for the lifetime of care your child may need.

Make sure you’ve considered all potential circumstances

These are just a few of the questions you should consider when choosing a life insurance beneficiary. I would be happy to speak with you to be certain you’ve thought through all possible circumstances.

And if you think you may need to create a trust—special needs or otherwise—to receive the proceeds of your life insurance, meet with me, so I can properly review all of your assets and consider how to best leave behind what you have in a way that will create the most benefit—and the least challenges—for the people you love. Schedule a time to speak with me today!