Understanding Why a Will is Important

A Will is an important estate planning tool that describes your wishes for your property after death and who is responsible to see your wishes through.

These questions presented by The Westerly Sun in the article “Making a will is an important legal step,” may seem very basic, but many people don’t really understand how a will works and why they are such an important part of estate planning. Let’s go through these fundamentals about wills.

A will is a legal document that must be prepared under very strict standards to explain your wishes about how you want your estate–that is, your property, money, tangible possessions, and real estate—distributed after you die.

A will also does more than that.  A will, which is sometimes referred to as a “Last Will and Testament,” also makes clear who is going to be in charge of your affairs after death, by naming them as executor of your estate.

A complete estate plan includes a will and several other documents, including a power of attorney, healthcare power of attorney and potentially a trust.  The goal of all of these documents is to make it easier for your surviving spouse or loved ones to take care of you and your affairs, if you become too ill to speak on your own behalf or when you die.

Your will provides instructions about what happens to your estate. Who should receive your money and property? These instructions must be followed by the person you choose as your executor. The local probate court must give its approval, and then the estate can be distributed.

If you have a valid will, it is admitted to probate (a court process) upon your death, and then your wishes are followed. If you don’t have a will, you are said to have died “intestate.” The laws of the state, and not you, and not your loved ones, decide what will happen to everything you own that is subject to the intestacy process. Usually this means that assets are distributed to family members based on their degree of kinship with you.  In Texas, it also means there may be a separate process to determine who those heirs are, which can be time intensive and costly.

It also may not be what you wanted. If you have minor children, the Court may appoint a guardian for those children, or may establish a court monitored trust for the property they receive until they are old enough to handle their own affairs.  All of these extra steps and complexity make a will necessary.

Many clients chose to also use trusts as part of their estate plan and coordinate the trust with the will.  This provides the added benefit of avoiding the probate process, making administration even easier.  Even if you use a trust in your estate plan, you may still need a will in conjunction with that trust.   See here for more details.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/how-do-trusts-work-in-your-estate-plan/

No one likes to think about dying, or becoming incapacitated, but by planning ahead and working with an experienced estate planning attorney to prepare a will, you can determine what you want to happen, and protect those you love.

Reference: The Westerly Sun (August 18, 2019) “Making a will is an important legal step”

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Checklist When Visiting Assisted Living Facilities

When visiting an assisted living for you or your loved one, ask the right questions to find a safe, affordable community with quality care.

When you are trying to find an assisted living community for yourself or a loved one, you need to do your homework to find at least three candidates that meet all the needs of the future resident. After you have narrowed your search down to those facilities, you should visit each one with the person who will be living there. Know what you want to look for before you visit the first center, so you will get all the information you need from every facility.

It is easy to get overwhelmed in the process of finding the right assisted living community. To help you in this quest, use this checklist when visiting assisted living facilities.

  1. First impressions count. Pay close attention to your initial thoughts and feelings about the assisted living center as you approach and enter. Your instincts often pick up on “micro-symptoms” that can indicate a problem, even before you notice the issue itself.
  2. Try to see down the road. Visualize yourself or your loved one actually living at the assisted living community. Ask yourself if you would be happy there. Pay attention to whether you feel comfortable or anxious. Evaluate whether the staff and other residents are friendly and inviting.  Does this facility have skilled nursing on site?  If the resident’s health worsens, would they have to move?
  3. Use your Nose. When you walk through the building, pay attention to the smells. You should not be able to detect any unpleasant odors. Strong “cover-up” scents are also a potential warning that the place likely has cleanliness issues.
  4. Look for dirt, dust, and grime in the obvious locations and places, like the baseboards and windows. Cleanliness counts in an assisted living facility.
  5. The staff in action. Watch the staff when they are interacting with the residents. Look at the body language of both the staff and residents.  Is the staff courteous and warm?  Are the residents resentful or fearful? Keep looking until you find an assisted living facility where both the residents and the staff are happy, warm and friendly.
  6. The proof is in the pudding. Good food is one of the highlights for many people who reside in assisted living. Visit during mealtime and arrange to eat a meal there. Find out if the meals are both nutritious and tasty. Get a copy of the monthly menus to check for variety. Find out the center’s policy, when a resident cannot come to the dining room.
  7. Explore the both outdoor areas and the indoor facilities. Make sure that your loved one would be safe when enjoying some fresh air outside.
  8. The current residents. You can find out valuable information from the people who already live at the center. Without making them feel uncomfortable, notice whether the residents are well-groomed and wearing clean clothes. Sit and visit with some residents. Let them know you are considering this community for yourself or a loved one. Ask for their advice. Find out if they have to wait a long time for personal care or other services. If so, the facility is likely under-staffed.
  9. Check the price.  Assisted living isn’t cheap, but don’t let price drive the decision.  If you go to the cheapest place, you can expect to get a matching level of care.  Instead, consider the price and then consider how you’ll pay for assisted living.  Medicaid isn’t always available for assisted living, but may be if health worsens and your loved one is in a nursing home.  Perhaps the Veterans Administration offers a benefit you can use, or perhaps you have long-term care insurance.  See our Elder Law page for a longer overview.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/practice-areas/elder-law/ 

In the end, this is an important decision and you should do your homework to find the right assisted living for your or your loved one.

References:

A Place for Mom. “Tips for Touring Assisted Living Communities.” (accessed August 7, 2019) https://www.aplaceformom.com/planning-and-advice/articles/tips-for-touring-assisted-living

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Amending a Trust: What are your Options?

If your trust no longer meets your needs, there are many ways to amend the trust to serve your goals for you and your loved ones.

A son has contacted an elder law estate planning attorney now that mom is in a nursing home and he’s unsure about many of the planning issues, as reported by the Daily Republic. The article, “Amending trust easier if parents can make informed decision,” describes the family’s situation.

The son has numerous valid concerns about paying his parents’ bills, managing their assets and avoiding personal liability if they are sued.  The author addresses these concerns for the son, but I’d like to focus on one point: updating and amending the trust.

All estate plans change over time as an individual’s needs and wishes change.  Sometimes the trust will anticipate these changes, such as naming a successor trustee to take over when the trust creators can no longer make financial decisions.  In the son’s case, that might be enough.  However, if the trust doesn’t address the issue or if the trust makers’ needs and wishes change substantially, it is sometimes necessary to amend a trust.  Sometimes it is good to amend a trust for tax reasons, such as Mary describes here:  https://www.galliganmanning.com/higher-estate-tax-exemption-means-you-could-save-income-taxes-by-updating-your-estate-plan/

If his parents have a revocable or living trust and have the capacity to handle their financial affairs, they can choose to amend the trust themselves.  This is by far the best and cheapest option as the parents can review the trust each year, put their son in charge of their affairs if they wish and make other appropriate changes.  They can do this very easily by either making an amendment or restating the trust.  Restating is amending the trust by rewriting the terms of the trust with the changes without actually creating a new trust.

If his parents do not have the capacity to make financial decisions, that doesn’t mean the son can’t amend the trust.  Often powers of attorney permit an agent to amend a trust if the principal (person who makes the power of attorney) is incapacitated.  Now, the powers of attorney will usually have limitations built in.  For example, they may require the agent to follow the principal’s “testamentary intent.”  This means that the beneficiaries of the estate plan should be generally the same.  So, if the son wasn’t a beneficiary of the trust, he can’t make himself one now. He also still needs to act in the best interest of the principal.  But, amending the trust to protect the assets and better care for his parents is just fine.

Let’s say the trust is an irrevocable trust, or perhaps the power of attorney doesn’t permit amending the trust, what then?   There are still options.

Some trusts include “trust protectors.”  This is a person named in the trust who can amend the trust in limited ways to make sure it still works.  A trust protector is usually a trusted individual, occasionally an attorney, who can make amendments to the trust.  Depending on the reason for the change, it is also possible to ask a Court to modify the trust.   It’s even possible sometimes to “decant” a trust.  Decanting is not really amending a trust, it is creating a whole new trust with new terms, and then transferring the assets from the old trust to the new one.  These techniques are more complex and expensive, but very helpful, especially with very out-of-date trusts that haven’t been reviewed or amended in some time.

The key point is that is important to review and keep your trust up to date.  But, even if you have a trust that is old or doesn’t work well, there are many ways to amend a trust to ensure proper administration of the assets for you and your beneficiaries.

Reference: Daily Republic (Aug. 10, 2019) “Amending trust easier if parents can make informed decision”

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