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Houston Estate Planning and Probate Blog

Monday, February 17, 2014

8 Things to Consider When Selecting a Caregiver for Your Senior Parent

As a child of a senior citizen, you are faced with many choices in helping to care for your parent. You want the very best care for your mother or father, but you also have to take your personal needs, family obligations and finances into consideration.

When choosing a caregiver for a loved one, there are a number of things to keep in mind during the selection process:

  1. Time. Do you require part- or full-time care for your parent? Are you looking for a caregiver to come into your home? Will your parent live with the caregiver or will your parent live in a senior care facility? According to the National Alliance for Caregiving, 58 percent of care recipients live in their own home and 20 percent live with the caregiver. You should consider your current arrangement but also take time to identify some alternatives in the event that the requirements of care should change in the future.
  2. Family ties. If you have siblings, they probably want to be involved in the decision of your parent’s care. If you have a sibling who lives far away, sharing in the care responsibilities or decision-making process may prove to be a challenge. It’s important that you open up the lines of communication with your parents and your siblings so everyone is aware and in agreement about the best course of care.
  3. Specialized care. Some caregivers and care facilities specialize in specific conditions or treatments. For instance, there are special residences for those with Alzheimer’s and others for those suffering from various types of cancer. If your parent suffers from a disease or physical ailment, you may want to take this into consideration during the selection process
  4. Social interaction. Many seniors fear that caregivers or care facilities will be isolating, limiting their social interaction with friends and loved ones. It’s important to keep this in mind throughout the process and identify the activities that he or she may enjoy such as playing games, exercising or cooking. Make sure to inquire about the caregiver’s ability to allow social interaction. Someone who is able to accommodate your parent’s individual preferences or cultural activities will likely be a better fit for your mother or father.
  5. Credentials. Obviously, it is important to make sure that the person or team who cares for your parent has the required credentials. Run background checks and look at facility reviews to ensure you are dealing with licensed, accredited individuals. You may choose to run an independent background check or check references for added peace of mind.
  6. Scope of care. If you are looking for a live-in caregiver, that person is responsible for more than just keeping an eye on your mother or father—he or she may be responsible for preparing meals, dispensing medication, transporting your parent, or managing the home. Facilities typically have multidisciplinary personnel to care for residents, but an individual will likely need to complete a variety of tasks and have a broad skill set to do it all.
  7. Money. Talk to your parent about the financial arrangements that he or she may have in place. If this isn’t an option, you will likely need to discuss the options with your siblings or your parent’s lawyer—or check your mother’s or father’s estate plan—to find out more about available assets and how to make financial choices pertaining to your parent’s care.
  8. Prepare. Upon meeting the prospective caregiver or visiting a facility, it is important to have questions prepared ahead of time so you can gather all of the information necessary to make an informed choice. Finally, be prepared to listen to your parent’s concerns or observations so you can consider their input in the decision. If he or she is able, they will likely want to make the choice themselves.

Choosing a caregiver for your parent is an important decision that weighs heavily on most adult children but with the right planning and guidance, you can make the best choice for your family. Once you find the right person, make sure to follow up as care continues and to check in with your mother or father to ensure the caregiver is the perfect fit.


Friday, January 31, 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 $6,000 to $10,000 per month, depending on the facility. Many 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 may begin "estate recovery" for the total cost spent during the recipient's lifetime. Medicaid may issue a bill to the estate, and 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, January 27, 2014

Protecting Your Vacation Home with a Cabin Trust

Many people own a family vacation home--a lakeside cabin, a beachfront condo--a place where parents, children and grandchildren can gather for vacations, holidays and a bit of relaxation. It is important that the treasured family vacation home be considered as part of a thorough estate plan. In many cases, the owner wants to ensure that the vacation home remains within the family after his or her death, and not be sold as part of an estate liquidation.

There are generally two ways to accomplish this goal. Within a revocable living trust, a popular option is to create a separate sub-trust called a "Cabin Trust" that will come into existence upon the death of the original owner(s). The vacation home would then be transferred into this Trust, along with a specific amount of money that will cover the cost of upkeep for the vacation home for a certain period of time. The Trust should also designate who may use the vacation home (usually the children or grandchildren). Usually, when a child dies, his/her right to use the property would pass to his/her children.

The Cabin Trust should also name a Trustee, who would be responsible for the general management of the property and the funds retained for upkeep of the vacation home. The Trust can specify what will happen when the Cabin Trust money runs out, and the circumstances under which the vacation property can be sold. Often the Trust will allow the children the first option to buy the property.

Another method of preserving the family vacation home is the creation of a Limited Liability Company or Partnership to hold the house. The parents can assign interests or shares to their children, and provide for a mechanism to determine how to pay for the vacation home taxes and upkeep. An LLC or LLP provides protection from liability, in case someone is injured on the property.

It is always wise to consult with an estate planning attorney about how to best protect and preserve a vacation home for future generations.


Friday, January 24, 2014

What to Do after a Loved One Passes Away

The loss of a loved one is a difficult time, often made more stressful when one has to handle the affairs of the deceased. This may be a great undertaking or rather minimal work, depending upon the level of estate planning done prior to death.

Tasks that have to be performed after the passing of a loved one will vary based on whether the departed individual had a will or not. In determining whether probate (a court-managed process where the assets of the deceased are managed and distributed) is needed, the assets owned by the individual, and whether/how these assets were titled, must be considered. It’s important to understand that assets titled jointly with another person as joint tenants with rights of survivorship, are not probate assets and will normally pass to the surviving joint owner. Also, assets such as life insurance and retirement assets that name a beneficiary will pass to the named beneficiaries outside of the court probate process. If the deceased relative had formed a trust and during his life retitled his assets into that trust, those trust assets will also not pass through the probate process - they would pass pursuant to the trust provisions.

Each state’s rules may be slightly different so it is important to seek proper legal advice if you are charged with handling the affairs of a deceased family member or friend. Assuming probate is required, there will be a process that you must follow to either file the will and ask to be appointed as the executor (assuming you were named executor in the will) or file for probate of the estate without a will (this is referred to as dying "intestate" which simply means dying without a will). Also, there will be a process to publish notice to creditors and you may be required to send each creditor specific notice of the death. Those creditors will have a certain amount of time to file a claim against the estate assets. If a legitimate creditor files a claim, the claim can be paid out of the estate assets. Depending on your state's laws, there may also be state death taxes (sometimes referred to as "inheritance taxes") that have to be paid and, under certain circumstances, if the estate is large enough, a federal estate tax return may also have to be filed along with any taxes which may be due. In Texas, there is no state death tax, just the federal estate tax, if applicable.

Only after the estate is fully administered, creditors paid, and tax returns filed and taxes paid, can the estate be fully distributed to the named beneficiaries or heirs. Given the many steps, and complexities of probate, you should seek legal counsel to help you through the process.


Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Moving to Another State and How it Affects Estate Planning

In general, wills or living trusts that are valid in one state should be valid in all states. However, if you’ve recently moved, it’s highly recommended that you consult an estate planning attorney in your new state. This is because states can have very different laws regarding all aspects of estate planning. For example, some states may allow you to disinherit a spouse if certain language is used, while other states may not allow it.

Another event that can cause problems with moving and estate planning is moving from a community property state to a common law state or vice versa. In community property states, all property earned or acquired during marriage is generally owned in equal halves by each spouse, with some exceptions of separate property, such as any property received by only one of them through gift or inheritance. The property that is considered community property includes income, anything acquired with income during the marriage, and any separate property that is transformed into community property. Separate property includes anything owned by either spouse before marriage, property received by only one spouse by gift or inheritance, and certain types of personal injury recoveries. One spouse is not required in community property states to leave his or her half of the community property to another spouse, although many do.

In common law states, property acquired during a marriage is not automatically owned by both spouses. In common law states, the spouse who earns money and acquires property owns it by himself or herself, unless he or she chooses to share it with his or her spouse. Common law states usually have rules to protect a surviving spouse from being disinherited.

Whether a couple lives in a community property state or a common law state is important for estate planning purposes, because that can directly affect what each spouse is considered to own at death.

If a couple moves from a common law state to a community property state, there are different rules about what happens depending on where you move. Typically, if a couple moves from a community property state to a common law state, each spouse retains a one-half interest in property accumulated during marriage while they lived in the community property state.

The laws of different states vary significantly with respect to incapacity planning, estate planning and inheritance rights. Therefore, it’s important to contact an estate planning attorney in your new area, especially if you are moving from a community property state to a common law state, or vice versa.


Friday, December 27, 2013

Important Issues to Consider When Setting Up Your Estate Plan

Often estate planning focuses on the “big picture” issues, such as who gets what, whether a living trust should be created to avoid probate and tax planning to minimize gift and estate taxes. However, there are many smaller issues, which are just as critical to the success of your overall estate plan. Below are some of the issues that are often overlooked by clients and sometimes their attorneys.

Cash Flow
Is there sufficient cash? Estates incur operating expenses throughout the administration phase. Sometimes, the estate has to pay state or federal estate taxes, filing fees, living expenses for a surviving spouse or other dependents, cover regular expenses to maintain assets held in the estate, and various legal expenses associated with settling the estate.

Taxes
How will taxes be paid? Although the estate may be small enough to avoid federal estate taxes, there are other taxes which must be paid. Depending on jurisdiction, the state may impose an estate tax. If the estate is earning income, it must pay income taxes until the estate is fully settled. Income taxes are paid from the liquid assets held in the estate, however estate taxes could be paid by either the estate or from each beneficiary’s inheritance if the underlying assets are liquid.

Assets
What, exactly, is held in the estate? The owner of the estate certainly knows this information, but estate administrators, successor trustees and executors may not have certain information readily available. A notebook or list documenting what major items are owned by the estate should be left for the estate administrator. It should also include locations and identifying information, including serial numbers and account numbers.

Creditors
Your estate can’t be settled until all creditors have been paid. As with your assets, be sure to leave your estate administrator a document listing all creditors and account numbers. Be sure to also include information regarding where your records are kept, in the event there are disputes regarding the amount the creditor claims is owed.

Beneficiary Designations
Some assets are not subject to the terms of a will or living trust. Instead, they are transferred directly to a beneficiary according to the instruction made on a beneficiary designation form. Bank accounts, life insurance policies, annuities, retirement plans, IRAs and some motor vehicles departments allow you to designate a beneficiary to inherit the asset upon your death. By doing so, the asset is not included in the probate estate or trust estate and instead, simply passes to your designated beneficiary by operation of law.

Fund Your Living Trust
Your probate-avoidance living trust will not keep your estate out of the probate court unless you formally transfer your non-retirement assets into the trust. Only assets which are legally owned by the trust are subject to its terms. Title to your real property, vehicles, investments and other financial accounts should be transferred into the name of your living trust.


Monday, December 23, 2013

Protecting Your Legacy with Estate Tax Planning

You spend your whole life building your legacy but sadly, that is not always enough. Without careful estate tax planning, much of it could be lost to taxes or misdirected. While a will or living trust is essential for dividing your estate as you wish, an estate tax plan ensures you pass on as much of your legacy as possible.

Understanding estate tax laws

For the past decade, estate tax laws have been a sort of political football game with significant changes occurring every few years. The good news is that the 2013 tax act made the basic $5 million estate tax exemption “permanent,” but at a higher rate of 40%, though the law continues to upwardly adjust the exemption level for inflation. With this adjustment, the 2013 exclusion is $5.25 million per person ($10.5 million per married couple). The law also retained exclusion “portability” which means that if one spouse dies in 2013 or after, the surviving spouse may pass on the unused portion of the deceased spouse’s exclusion. This portability is not automatic, however. The unused portion needs to be transferred to the surviving spouse, and a special tax return (estate tax return) must be filed within nine months of the death of the first spouse. The surviving spouse does not have to pay estate taxes at this time, they only become due, (if at all), after both spouses have died.

Optimizing your estate plan

One way to maximize the amount you can pass on is through annual gifting while you are alive. For 2013, an individual is allowed to give $14,000 to another individual, tax-free. If you give more than that, it will reduce your basic lifetime exclusion. So, if you give a child $50,000 this year, your basic $5.25 million exclusion will be reduced by $36,000 at the time of your death. You can gift as much as your full $5.25 million exclusion before incurring taxes, although doing so would “exhaust” your estate tax exemption at death. Gift tax rates were raised to 40% in 2013 and are paid by the giver, not the recipient.

An experienced estate tax planning attorney can help minimize potential gift and estate taxes by:

  • Identifying taxable assets
  • Transforming your wishes into a will or living trust
  • Keeping you apprised of federal and state tax law changes
  • Establishing an annual gifting plan
  • Creating family and charitable trusts
  • Setting up IRA charitable rollovers
  • Setting up 529 education savings plans
  • Helping you create a succession plan for your family business

It’s never pleasant to consider the end of your life, but planning for it will help ensure that the things you care about are cared for. It is one of the greatest gifts you can give your loved ones.


Friday, November 29, 2013

Overview of Life Estates

Establishing a Life Estate is a relatively simple process in which you transfer your property to your children, while retaining your right to use and live in the property. Life Estates are used to avoid probate, maximize tax benefits and protect the real property from potential long-term care expenses you may incur in your later years. Transferring property into a Life Estate avoids some of the disadvantages of making an outright gift of property to your heirs. However, it is not right for everyone and comes with its own set of advantages and disadvantages.

Life Estates establish two different categories of property owners: the Life Tenant Owner and the Remainder Owner. The Life Tenant Owner maintains the absolute and exclusive right to use the property during his or her lifetime. This can be a sole owner or joint Life Tenants. Life Tenant(s) maintain responsibility for property taxes, insurance and maintenance. Life Tenant(s) are also entitled to rent out the property and to receive all income generated by the property.

Remainder Owner(s) automatically take legal ownership of the property immediately upon the death of the last Life Tenant. Remainder Owners have no right to use the property or collect income generated by the property, and are not responsible for taxes, insurance or maintenance, as long as the Life Tenant is still alive.

Advantages

  • Life Estates are simple and inexpensive to establish; merely requiring that a new Deed be recorded.
  • Life Estates avoid probate for the property in question; the property automatically transfers to your heirs upon the death of the last surviving Life Tenant.
  • Transferring title following your death is a simple, quick process.
  • Life Tenant’s right to use and occupy property is protected; a Remainder Owner’s problems (financial or otherwise) do not affect the Life Tenant’s absolute right to the property during your lifetime.
  • Favorable tax treatment upon the death of a Life Tenant; when property is titled this way, your heirs enjoy a stepped-up tax basis, as of the date of death, for capital gains purposes.
  • Property owned via a Life Estate is typically protected from Medicaid claims once 60 months have elapsed after the date of transfer into the Life Estate. After that five-year period, the property is protected against Medicaid liens to pay for end-of-life care. In some situations, there may be other planning options with Life Estate Deeds, such as utilization of a Lady Bird Deed, that may avoid Medicaid Recovery as well, but they have different issues and ramifications than a simple Life Estate Deed.

Disadvantages

  • Medicaid; that 60-month waiting period referenced above also means that the Life Tenants are subject to a 60-month disqualification period for Medicaid purposes. This period begins on the date the property is transferred into the Life Estate.
  • Potential income tax consequences if the property is sold while the Life Tenant is still alive; Life Tenants do not receive the full income tax exemption normally available when a personal residence is sold. Remainder Owners receive no such exemption, so any capital gains tax would likely be due from the Remainder Owner’s proportionate share of proceeds from the sale.
  • In order to sell the property, all owners must agree and sign the Deed, including Life Tenants and Remainder Owners; Life Tenant’s lose the right of sole control over the property.
  • Transfer into a Life Estate is irrevocable; however if all Life Tenants and Remainder Owners agree, a change can be made but may be subject to negative tax or Medicaid consequences.

 


Thursday, November 21, 2013

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 18, 2013

Don’t Disinherit with a Dollar

There are a lot of myths and misconceptions surrounding estate planning. Many people think that a last will and testament is the only estate planning document you really need. This of course is false. Others assume that you only need to have an estate plan in place if you’re a millionaire. This too is false. Another popular myth in the world of estate planning is that the best way to disinherit a relative (particularly a child) is to leave him or her a single dollar in your will. You probably guessed it - this too is entirely false.

The truth of the matter is that you must be very careful with leaving someone you really want to disinherit a token gift of $1 or some other small amount. By doing so, you have now made that person a beneficiary of your estate. It is possible, if not likely, that state law will require your executor to provide all beneficiaries with copies of all pleadings, an accounting, and notice of various administration activities. This may make it easier for this "beneficiary" to now complain about things and may cause problems for your executor which could cost your estate money.

Instead of leaving a token amount, you might consider mentioning the person by name so it is clear that you have not simply overlooked them. Then, you would specifically state you are intentionally disinheriting them from your estate. Also, consider if you wish to disinherit that person's children or more remote descendants and if so specifically state that as well in your will. You should consult with an estate planning lawyer to assist you in the proper wording as you will want to make sure there is as little likelihood of a will contest as possible.


Monday, October 28, 2013

Guardianships 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. In Texas, there are two types of guardians - a guardian of the person would make decisions concerning the physical person of the disabled individual, and a guardian of the estate would make decisions about the finances.

Typically, a loved one who is seeking a guardianship will petition the appropriate court to be appointed guardian. The court will 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 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 must file annual reports on the status of the ward and his finances.

Guardianships 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 medical powers of attorney. 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 incapacitated someone else can manage your trust property on your behalf.

In addition to establishing durable powers of attorney and advanced healthcare directives and living trusts, 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 or guardianship. 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. As with most things, thoughtful planning in advance can prevent many problems down the road.

 


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