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Monday, December 8, 2014

Making Your Home Senior-Proof

Let’s face it – it’s tough getting old. The aches, pains, and pills often associated with aging are things that many members of the baby-boomer generation know all too well by now. Though you might not be able to turn back time, you can help an aging loved one enjoy their golden years by giving them a safe, affordable place to call home. If an aging parent is moving in with you and your family, there are many quick fixes for the home that will create a safe environment for seniors.

Start by taking a good look at your floor plan. Are all the bedrooms upstairs? You may want to think about turning a living area on the main floor into a bedroom. Stairs grow difficult with age, especially for seniors with canes or walkers. Try to have everything they need accessible on one floor, including a bed, full bathroom, and kitchen. If the one-floor plan isn’t possible, make sure you have railings installed on both sides of staircases for support. A chair lift is another option for seniors who require walkers or wheelchairs.

Be sure to remove all hazards in hallways and on floors. Get rid of throw rugs – they can pose a serious tripping hazard. Make sure all child or pet toys are kept off the floor. Add nightlights to dark hallways for easy movement during the night when necessary. Also install handrails for support near doorframes and most importantly, in bathrooms.

Handlebars next to toilets and in showers are essential for senior safety. Use traction strips in the shower, which should also be equipped with a seat and removable showerhead. To avoid accidental scalding, set your hot water heater so that temperatures can’t reach boiling. You may also want to consider a raised seat with armrests to place over your toilet, to make sitting and standing easier.

This applies to all other chairs in the house as well. Big, puffy chairs and couches can make it very difficult for seniors to sit and stand. Have living and dining room chairs with stable armrests, and consider an electronic recliner for easy relaxation.

To keep everyone comfortable and help avoid accidents, store all frequently used items in easily accessible places. Keep heavy kitchen items between waist and chest height.

Even with appropriate precautions, not all accidents can be avoided. Purchasing a personal alarm system like Life Alert can be the most important preparation you make for a senior family member. If they are ever left alone, Life Alert provides instant medical attention with the push of a button that they wear at all times.

Amidst all the safety preparations, remember that it’s important to keep the brain healthy, too. Have puzzles, cards, large-print books and magazines, computer games, and simple exercises available to keep seniors of healthy body and mind.

These simple preparations can not only help extend the life of your loved one, but help to make sure their remaining years are happy and healthy.


Monday, November 24, 2014

Should I Transfer My Home to My Children?

Most people are aware that probate should be avoided if at all possible. It is an expensive, time-consuming process that exposes your family’s private matters to public scrutiny via the judicial system. It sounds simple enough to just gift your property to your children while you are still alive, so it is not subject to probate upon your death, or to preserve the asset in the event of significant end-of-life medical expenses.

This strategy may offer some potential benefits, but those benefits are far outweighed by the risks. And with other probate-avoidance tools available, such as living trusts, it makes sense to view the risks and benefits of transferring title to your property through a very critical lens.

Potential Advantages:

  • Property titled in the names of your heirs, or with your heirs as joint tenants, is not subject to probate upon your death.
  • If you do not need nursing home care for the first 60 months after the transfer, but later do need such care, the property in question will not be considered for Medicaid eligibility purposes.
  • If you are named on the property’s title at the time of your death, creditors cannot make a claim against the property to satisfy the debt.
  • Your heirs may agree to pay a portion, or all, of the property’s expenses, including taxes, insurance and maintenance.


Potential Disadvantages:

  • It may jeopardize your ability to obtain nursing home care. If you need such care within 60 months of transferring the property, you can be penalized for the gift and may not be eligible for Medicaid for a period of months or years, or will have to find another source to cover the expenses.
  • You lose sole control over your property. Once you are no longer the legal owner, you must get approval from your children in order to sell or refinance the property.
  • If your child files for bankruptcy, or gets divorced, your child’s creditors or former spouse can obtain a legal ownership interest in the property.
  • If you outlive your child, the property may be transferred to your child’s heirs.
  • Potential negative tax consequences: If property is transferred to your child and is later sold, capital gains tax may be due, as your child will not be able to take advantage of the IRS’s primary residence exclusion. You may also lose property tax exemptions. Finally, when the child ultimately sells the property, he or she may pay a higher capital gains tax than if the property was inherited, since inherited property enjoys a stepped-up tax basis as of the date of death.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to estate planning. Transferring ownership of your property to your children while you are still alive may be appropriate for your situation. However, for most this strategy is not recommended due to the significant risks. If your goal is to avoid probate, maximize tax benefits and provide for the seamless transfer of your property upon your death, a living trust is likely a far better option.


Monday, November 17, 2014

Guardianships & Conservatorships and How to Avoid Them

If a person becomes mentally or physically handicapped to a point where they can no longer make rational decisions about their person or their finances, their loved ones may consider a guardianship or a conservatorship whereby a guardian would make decisions concerning the physical person of the disabled individual, and conservators make decisions about the finances.

Typically, a loved one who is seeking a guardianship or a conservatorship will petition the appropriate court to be appointed guardian and/or conservator. The court will most likely require a medical doctor to make an examination of the disabled individual, also referred to as the ward, and appoint an attorney to represent the ward’s interests. The court will then typically hold a hearing to determine whether a guardianship and/or conservatorship should be established. If so, the ward would no longer have the ability to make his or her own medical or financial decisions.  The guardian and/or conservator usually must file annual reports on the status of the ward and his finances.

Guardianships and conservatorships can be an expensive legal process, and in many cases they are not necessary or could be avoided with a little advance planning. One way is with a financial power of attorney, and advance directives for healthcare such as living wills and durable powers of attorney for healthcare. With those documents, a mentally competent adult can appoint one or more individuals to handle his or her finances and healthcare decisions in the event that he or she can no longer take care of those things. A living trust is also a good way to allow someone to handle your financial affairs – you can create the trust while you are alive, and if you become incompetent someone else can manage your property on your behalf.

In addition to establishing durable powers of attorney and advanced healthcare directives, it is often beneficial to apply for representative payee status for government benefits. If a person gets VA benefits, Social Security or Supplemental Security Income, the Social Security Administration or the Veterans’ Administration can appoint a representative payee for the benefits without requiring a conservatorship. This can be especially helpful in situations in which the ward owns no assets and the only income is from Social Security or the VA.

When a loved one becomes mentally or physically handicapped to the point of no longer being able to take care of his or her own affairs, it can be tough for loved ones to know what to do. Fortunately, the law provides many options for people in this situation.  
 


Monday, November 10, 2014

What’s Involved in Serving as an Executor?

An executor is the person designated in a Will as the individual who is responsible for performing a number of tasks necessary to wind down the decedent’s affairs. Generally, the executor’s responsibilities involve taking charge of the deceased person’s assets, notifying beneficiaries and creditors, paying the estate’s debts and distributing the property to the beneficiaries. The executor may also be a beneficiary of the Will, though he or she must treat all beneficiaries fairly and in accordance with the provisions of the Will.

First and foremost, an executor must obtain the original, signed Will as well as other important documents such as certified copies of the Death Certificate.  The executor must notify all persons who have an interest in the estate or who are named as beneficiaries in the Will. A list of all assets must be compiled, including value at the date of death. The executor must take steps to secure all assets, whether by taking possession of them, or by obtaining adequate insurance. Assets of the estate include all real and personal property owned by the decedent; overlooked assets sometimes include stocks, bonds, pension funds, bank accounts, safety deposit boxes, annuity payments, holiday pay, and work-related life insurance or survivor benefits.

The executor is responsible for compiling a list of the decedent’s debts, as well. Debts can include credit card accounts, loan payments, mortgages, home utilities, tax arrears, alimony and outstanding leases. All of the decedent’s creditors must also be notified and given an opportunity to make a claim against the estate.

Whether the Will must be probated depends on a variety of factors, including size of the estate and how the decedent’s assets were titled. An experienced probate or estate planning attorney can help determine whether probate is required, and assist with carrying out the executor’s duties. If the estate must go through probate, the executor must file with the court to probate the Will and be appointed as the estate’s legal representative.  Once the executor has this legal authority, he or she must pay all of the decedent’s outstanding debts, provided there are sufficient assets in the estate. After debts have been paid, the executor must distribute the remaining real and personal property to the beneficiaries, in accordance with the wishes set forth in the Will. Because the executor is accountable to the beneficiaries of the estate, it is extremely important to keep complete, accurate records of all expenditures, correspondence, asset distribution, and filings with the court and government agencies.

The executor is also responsible for filing all tax returns for the deceased person including federal and state income tax returns and estate tax filings, if applicable. Additional tasks may include notifying carriers for homeowner’s and auto insurance policies and initiating claims on life insurance policies.

The executor is entitled to compensation for his or her services.  This fee varies according to the estate’s size and may be subject to review depending on the complexity as well as the time and effort expended by the executor.

   


Monday, October 27, 2014

Planning Pitfall: Probate vs. Non-Probate Property

Transfer of property at death can be rather complex.  Many are under the impression that instructions provided in a valid will are sufficient to transfer their assets to the individuals named in the will.   However, there are a myriad of rules that affect how different types of assets transfer to heirs and beneficiaries, often in direct contradiction of what may be clearly stated in one’s will.

The legal process of administering property owned by someone who has passed away with a will is called probate.  Prior to his passing, a deceased person, or decedent, usually names an executor to oversee the process by which his wishes, outlined in his Will, are to be carried out. Probate property, generally consists of everything in a decedent’s estate that was directly in his name. For example, a house, vehicle, monies, stocks or any other asset in the decedent’s name is probate property. Any real or personal property that was in the decedent’s name can be defined as probate property.  

The difference between non-probate property and probate centers around whose name is listed as owner. Non-probate property consists of property that lists both the decedent and another as the joint owner (with right of survivorship) or where someone else has already been designated as a beneficiary, such as life insurance or a retirement account.  In these cases, the joint owners and designated beneficiaries supersede conflicting instructions in one’s will. Other examples of non-probate property include property owned by trusts, which also have beneficiaries designated. At the decedent’s passing, the non-probate items pass automatically to whoever is the joint owner or designated beneficiary.

Why do you need to know the difference? Simply put, the categories of probate and non-probate property will have a serious effect on how plan your estate.  If you own property jointly with right of survivorship with another individual, that individual will inherit your share, regardless of what it states in your will.  Estate and probate law can be different from state-to-state, so it’s best to have an attorney handle your estate plan and property ownership records to ensure that your assets go to the intended beneficiaries.


Monday, October 13, 2014

What is Estate Recovery?

Medicaid is a federal health program for individuals with low income and financial resources that is administered by each state. Each state may call this program by a different name. In California, for example, it is referred to as Medi-Cal. This program is intended to help individuals and couples pay for the cost of health care and nursing home care.

Most people are surprised to learn that Medicare (the health insurance available to all people over the age of 65) does not cover nursing home care. The average cost of nursing home care, also called "skilled nursing" or "convalescent care," can be $8,000 to $10,000 per month. Most people do not have the resources to cover these steep costs over an extended period of time without some form of assistance.

Qualifying for Medicaid can be complicated; each state has its own rules and guidelines for eligibility. Once qualified for a Medicaid subsidy, Medicaid will assign you a co-pay (your Share of Cost) for the nursing home care, based on your monthly income and ability to pay.

At the end of the Medicaid recipient's life (and the spouse's life, if applicable), Medicaid will begin "estate recovery" for the total cost spent during the recipient's lifetime. Medicaid will issue a bill to the estate, and will place a lien on the recipient's home in order to satisfy the debt. Many estate beneficiaries discover this debt only upon the death of a parent or loved one. In many cases, the Medicaid debt can consume most, if not all, estate assets.

There are estate planning strategies available that can help you accelerate qualification for a Medicaid subsidy, and also eliminate the possibility of a Medicaid lien at death. However, each state's laws are very specific, and this process is very complicated. It is very important to consult with an experienced elder law attorney in your jurisdiction.


Monday, October 6, 2014

Joint Bank Accounts and Medicaid Eligibility

Like most governmental benefit programs, there are many myths surrounding Medicaid and eligibility for benefits. One of the most common myths is the belief that only 50% of the funds in a jointly-owned bank account will be considered an asset for the purposes of calculating Medicaid eligibility.

Medicaid is a needs-based program that is administered by the state.  Therefore, many of its eligibility requirements and procedures vary across state lines.  Generally, when an applicant is an owner of a joint bank account the full amount in the account is presumed to belong to the applicant. Regardless of how many other names are listed on the account, 100% of the account balance is typically included when calculating the applicant’s eligibility for Medicaid benefits.    

Why would the state do this? Often, these jointly held bank accounts consist solely of funds contributed by the Medicaid applicant, with the second person added to the account for administrative or convenience purposes, such as writing checks or discussing matters with bank representatives. If a joint owner can document that both parties have contributed funds and the account is truly a “joint” account, the state may value the account differently. Absent clear and convincing evidence, however, the full balance of the joint bank account will be deemed to belong to the applicant.  


Monday, September 22, 2014

Testamentary vs Inter Vivos Trusts

The world of estate planning can be complex. If you have just started your research or are in the process of setting up your estate plan, you’ve likely encountered discussions of wills and trusts. While most people have a very basic understanding of a last will and testament, trusts are often foreign concepts. Two of the most common types of trusts used in estate planning are testamentary trusts and inter vivos trusts.

A testamentary trust refers to a trust that is established after your death from instructions set forth in your will. Because a will only has legal effect upon your death, such a trust has no existence until that time. In other words, at your death your will provides that the trusts be created for your loved ones whether that be a spouse, a child, a grandchild or someone else.

An inter vivos trust, also known as a revocable living trust, is created by you while you are living. It also may provide for ongoing trusts for your loved ones upon your death. One benefit of a revocable trust, versus simply using a will, is that the revocable trust plan may allow your estate to avoid a court-administered probate process upon your death. However, to take advantage this benefit you must "fund" your revocable trust with your assets while you are still living. To do so you would need to retitle most assets such as real estate, bank accounts, brokerage accounts, CDs, and other assets into the name of the trust.

Since one size doesn’t fit all in estate planning, you should contact a qualified estate planning attorney who can assess your goals and family situation, and work with you to devise a personalized strategy that helps to protect your loved ones, wealth and legacy.


Monday, September 15, 2014

Retirement Accounts and Estate Planning

For many Americans, retirement accounts comprise a substantial portion of their wealth. When planning your estate, it is important to consider the ramifications of tax-deferred retirement accounts, such as 401(k) and 403(b) accounts and traditional IRAs. (Roth IRAs are not tax-deferred accounts and are therefore treated differently). One of the primary goals of any estate plan is to pass your assets to your beneficiaries in a way that enables them to pay the lowest possible tax.

Generally, receiving inherited property is not a transaction that is subject to income tax. However, that is not the case with tax-deferred retirement accounts, which represent income for which the government has not previously collected income tax. Money cannot be kept in an IRA indefinitely; it must be distributed according to federal regulations. The amount that must be distributed annually is known as the required minimum distribution (RMD). If the distributions do not equal the RMD, beneficiaries may be forced to pay a 50% excise tax on the amount that was not distributed as required.

After death, the beneficiaries typically will owe income tax on the amount withdrawn from the decedent’s retirement account. Beneficiaries must take distributions from the account based on the IRS’s life expectancy tables, and these distributions are taxed as ordinary income. If there is more than one beneficiary, the one with the shortest life expectancy is the designated beneficiary for distribution purposes. Proper estate planning techniques should afford the beneficiaries a way to defer this income tax for as long as possible by delaying withdrawals from the tax-deferred retirement account.

The most tax-favorable situation occurs when the decedent’s spouse is the named beneficiary of the account. The spouse is the only person who has the option to roll over the account into his or her own IRA. In doing so, the surviving spouse can defer withdrawals until he or she turns 70 ½; whereas any other beneficiary must start withdrawing money the year after the decedent’s death.

Generally, a revocable trust should not be the beneficiary of a tax-deferred retirement account, as this situation limits the potential for income tax deferral. A trust may be the preferred option if a life expectancy payout option or spousal rollover are unimportant or unavailable, but this should be discussed in detail with an experienced estate planning attorney. Additionally, there are situations where income tax deferral is not a consideration, such as when an IRA or 401(k) requires a lump-sum distribution upon death, when a beneficiary will liquidate the account upon the decedent’s death for an immediate need, or if the amount is so small that it will not result in a substantial amount of additional income tax.

The bottom line is that trusts typically should be avoided as beneficiaries of tax-deferred retirement accounts, unless there is a compelling non-tax-related reason that outweighs the lost income tax deferral of using a trust. This is a complex area of law involving inheritance and tax implications that should be fully considered with the aid of an experienced estate planning lawyer.


Monday, September 8, 2014

Should you withdraw your Social Security benefits early?

You don’t have to be retired to dip into your Social Security benefits which are available to you as early as age 62.  But is the early withdrawal worth the costs?

A quick visit to the U.S. Social Security Administration Retirement Planner website can help you figure out just how much money you’ll receive if you withdraw early. The benefits you will collect before reaching the full retirement age of 66 will be less than your full potential amount.

The reduction of benefits in early withdrawal is based upon the amount of time you currently are from full retirement age. If you withdraw at the earliest point of age 62, you will receive 25% less than your full benefits.  If you were born after 1960, that amount is 30%. At 63, the reduction is around 20%, and it continues to decrease as you approach the age of 66.

Withdrawing early also presents a risk if you think there is a chance you may go back to work. Excess earnings may be cause for the Social Security Administration to withhold some benefits. Though a special rule is in existence that withholding cannot be applied for one year during retired months, regardless of yearly earnings, extended working periods can result in decreased benefits. The withheld benefits, however, will be taken into consideration and recalculated once you reach full retirement age.

If you are considering withdrawing early from your retirement accounts, it is important to consider both age and your particular benefits. If you are unsure of how much you will receive, you can look to your yearly statement from Social Security. Social Security Statements are sent out to everyone over the age of 25 once a year, and should come in the mail about three months before your birthday. You can also request a copy of the form by phone or the web, or calculate your benefits yourself through programs that are available online at www.ssa.gov/retire.

The more you know about your benefits, the easier it will be to make a well-educated decision about when to withdraw. If you can afford to, it’s often worth it to wait. Ideally, if you have enough savings from other sources of income to put off withdrawing until after age 66, you will be rewarded with your full eligible benefits.
 


Saturday, August 30, 2014

Spendthrift Trusts

Unfortunately, not everyone in the world is responsible with money. Even those who are moneywise can run into bad luck in life which could cause them financial hardship. So when planning your estate, you should think twice about leaving a large sum of money to someone who can’t handle it. For those beneficiaries for whom you have concerns, a spendthrift trust may be an ideal solution.

If a person who is “bad with money”, or who is going through a rough time, gets a large inheritance, odds are that the inheritance will be gone in a matter of a few months or a year or two, with very little to show for it. A spendthrift trust is a trust that is designed to limit a beneficiary’s ability to waste the principal of a trust. The beneficiary of a spendthrift trust is a person who can’t handle money, or is addicted to drugs, alcohol, or another negative behavior. A spendthrift trust could even be used for someone in a destructive relationship.

In a spendthrift trust, a sum of money is set aside in a trust account. The beneficiary is never the trustee of a spendthrift trust. Instead, the trustee can be another family member, a family friend, or even a corporate trustee like a bank. The trustee will spend the money for the beneficiary’s needs or could make payments directly to the beneficiary, as the trust document allows. However, the beneficiary has no right to spend the principal of the trust. The beneficiary also doesn’t have the legal right to pledge the trust as security for a loan.

In some spendthrift trusts, the trustee could have the power to cut off benefits to a beneficiary who becomes self-destructive, such as with the use of drugs or alcohol. The money could then be accumulated for the beneficiary’s use later, or it could be paid to another beneficiary. Another option would be to give the trustee the option to only make payments on behalf of a beneficiary who has become self-destructive, but to withhold cash from that beneficiary.

Spendthrift trusts are a great tool to help potential beneficiaries who cannot handle money for various reasons. However, they aren’t perfect. They may be too strict in situations where the beneficiary may have a legitimate need for more money. If the spendthrift trust isn’t strict enough about what money is allowed to be spent on, that leaves a lot of control in the trustee’s hands, and he may find himself in the difficult position of standing between an erratic beneficiary and his or her money.

If you’re concerned about a particular beneficiary and his or her ability to manage money, be sure to consult with a qualified trust attorney to evaluate whether a spendthrift trust would be an effective tool for your estate plan.


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