How Do I Store Estate Planning Documents?

It’s a common series of events: an elderly parent is rushed to the hospital and once children are notified, the frantic search for the estate planning documents starts. It’s easily avoided with planning and communication, according to an article from The News-Enterprise titled “Give thought to storing your estate papers.” However, just because the solution is simple doesn’t mean most people address it.

As a general rule, estate planning documents should be kept together in a fire and waterproof container in a location known to and accessible by fiduciaries, and copies of some documents should be given to the fiduciaries in advance.

Most people think of bank safety deposit boxes for storage. However, it’s not a good location for several reasons. Individuals may not have access to the contents of the safe deposit box unless they are named on the account. Often a court process is necessary for permission to open a safety deposit box if no one is named on the account.

Even with their names on the account, emergencies don’t follow bankers’ hours and access may be difficult. Further, what if the Power of Attorney giving the person the ability to access the safe deposit box is inside the safe deposit box or the principal has died and the Will is in the box.   Bank officials are not likely to be willing to open the box to an unknown person and proof of that person’s authority is in the box.  This is like locking the key in the safe.

Even further, COVID and the economy have led many banks to close or not offer safety deposit boxes.  Banks don’t want to maintain as many brick and mortar locations, so that means safety deposit boxes have to go.

When you store estate planning documents, a well-organized binder of documents in a fire and waterproof container at home makes the most sense.

Certain documents should be given in advance to certain organizations or individuals.  For instance, health care documents, like a Medical Power of Attorney, Directive to Physicians (Living Will) and HIPAA authorizations, may be given to your agents, as well as to your primary care physician or to the medical facility if you go in for a procedure.  This way, agents have the necessary documentation should an emergency occur, and medical systems can add the documents to their file for you.  This way everyone (especially medical providers) are on the same page about your wishes and who will speak on your behalf.

Mary touched on other items that shouldn’t be kept in a safety deposit box in this article.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/things-you-should-not-keep-in-your-safe-deposit-box/  

Financial Powers of Attorney should be given to each financial institution or agency in preparation for use, close in time to when you expect to need it.

This may feel onerous, however, imagine the same hours spent communicating with banks plus the immense stress if the need to use it is time sensitive. Banks often want to review POA’s in advance of their use before accepting them, and that may take several weeks.

If your estate plan includes a trust, you’ll want your trustees’ to have a copy when you are ready to give it to them, and the original can be kept safe with your documents.

Wills are treated differently than POA documents. Wills are usually kept at home and not filed anywhere until after death.

Also, with all documents, especially the Will, it is important to track and keep safe the originals.  You may sometimes be able to probate copies of Wills, but it’s better to keep the original secure and avoid the need to probate a copy.  This is less critical for other documents, but the same policy holds.

Having estate planning documents properly prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney is the first step. Step two is ensuring they are safely and properly stored, so they are ready for use when needed.

Reference: The Times-Enterprise (June 11, 2022) “Give thought to storing your estate papers”

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Estate Planning in Different States

Estate planning in different states addresses key nuances between the states’ laws for people who move or spend much time in other states.

In this very mobile society, clients often move from state to state.  Whether the move is due to job opportunities, to be close (or far) from family or just for a change of scenery, many people will live in multiple states in their lifetime.  They often don’t realize that estate planning laws vary greatly from state to state and understanding the difference could have a significant impact on whether your estate plan is effective.  It is best to get this straight shortly after moving, says The National Law Review in the recent article “Updating Your Estate Plan: What Michigan Residents Need to Know When Moving to Florida.”

It’s not just people from Michigan who move to Florida who need to have their estate plans reviewed, if they are snowbirds or making a full-time move—it’s anyone who moves to another state, from any state. However, Florida’s popularity makes it a good example to use.

Florida restricts who is permitted to serve as a Personal Representatives under a will. The personal representative, also known as an executor, must be a descendant or ancestor of the decedent, a spouse, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, nephew, niece or descendant or ancestor of any such person or a Florida resident.

Florida doesn’t recognize “no contest” clauses in trusts or wills. It also does not recognize unwitnessed testamentary documents, which are handwritten documents even if they are in your own handwriting. By way of example, Texas does and have had to utilize that option during the COVID-19 lockdowns.

Florida also has a special set of laws, known as the Homestead laws, designed to protect a decedent’s surviving spouse and children. You may have had other plans for your Florida home, but they may not be passed to the people you have designated in your non-Florida will, if they don’t follow the Sunshine State’s guidelines.

Power of Attorney laws differ from state to state, and this can create huge headaches for families. In many states, powers of attorney can be “springing,” meaning they become effective upon disability. In Florida, once a Durable Power of Attorney is signed, it is effective. Florida may accept a power of attorney from another state, but Florida law will be applied to the agent’s actions, and restrictions will be based on Florida law, not that of another state.

Estate planning in different states is very unique when it comes to estate planning documents concerning medical and financial decisions while you are living, these are also different. I routinely tell people that if you relocate, you have to change these documents.  A living will names a person, known as a “Patient Advocate” in Michigan or a “Health Care Surrogate” in Florida, who is authorized to make decisions regarding end of life care, including providing, withholding, or withdrawing life-sustaining treatment. In Michigan, you need two doctors to certify a patient’s incapacity for non-life-or-death decisions. In Florida, only one doctor is needed.  Even simpler, these documents will not be reviewed by attorneys.  They will be reviewed by medical professionals rendering care to you.  So, it is best to give them the format they anticipate so there is not delay in providing care to you.

On a broader prospective, estate administrations are very different in different estates, and that leads to different goals in estate planning.  I’m admitted in Pennsylvania, New York and Texas.  In Pennsylvania, we frequently used wills as the primary estate plan vehicle because the probate process is easy to initiate, and all of the work of an estate administration exists whether or not you are using a trust.  In New York, we almost exclusively used trusts.  Probate was far more involved and expensive, which made living trusts extremely helpful to clients. In Texas, we definitely draft more trusts as they are still beneficial, but it isn’t nearly as critical as it is in New York.   To make it one step worse, Pennsylvania has inheritance taxes, New York has estate taxes, and Texas has neither.  Those are three very different estate planning realities.

As a final point, if you expect to relocate in the future and are considering estate planning, I strongly recommend a living trusts.  Trusts tend to be portable as they go outside of the court probate process, which is where many of the state nuances lie.  This is also helpful because clients who move often have real estate in multiple states.  Real property in multiple states potential means multiple probates, which people don’t expect.

So, if you are planning on a move or even if you just spend substantial time outside of your home state, meet with your estate planning attorney to understand how any and all of your estate planning documents will work—or not—when you are in another state.

Reference: The National Law Review (June 30, 2021) “Updating Your Estate Plan: What Michigan Residents Need to Know When Moving to Florida”

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Making Medical Decisions During Incapacity

Medical decisions during incapacity are made by the individuals named in a Medical Power of Attorney and Living Will following your wishes.

Today, there is greater awareness that incapacity from disease or injury is not a hypothetical. It’s reality, and there are tasks that must be done, as explained in a recent article entitled “Now Is the Time to Protect Your Health Care Decision-Making Rights” from Kiplinger, for making medical decisions during incapacity.

You have a fundamental right to make your own decisions regarding your healthcare decisions.  However, that can change quickly.  Failing to have your healthcare wishes documented properly also leaves your family in the terrible position of having to guess what you want, which puts them in a difficult and stressful position.

An estate planning attorney works with clients to plan how their assets will be distributed after they die (using a will and trusts, among other tools). However, they also help clients prepare for incapacity. Both are equally important, and incapacity planning might even be more important. There are three basic solutions used in most states, although each state has its own specific rules, so you will want to work with an estate planning attorney from your geographic area.

A Living Will (Directive to Physicians in Texas) addresses what you want to happen if you are in an end-stage medical condition or permanently unconsciousness. The living will can serve as an advance written directive for the type of treatment you want to have, or what treatments you do not want to have. If you are unable to communicate your wishes, this document conveys them in a clear and enforceable manner and indicates who can make that decision for you.

A Medical Power of Attorney works differently than a Living Will. This covers health care decision making when you cannot convey your own wishes. You appoint one or more agents to make health care decisions for you. They use their personal knowledge of you and the direction you indicate to make decisions on your behalf.

If you have not executed documents like these before becoming incapacitated, there are laws which provide for default decision-makers.  These laws authorize a list of individuals in order of preference to act as your health care representative and make health care decisions for you. This is the last and worst option.

It is much better for you and your family to have a plan and the proper documents for making medical decisions during incapacity. First, the state decides who will make healthcare decisions on your behalf, based on the law and not based upon people who you feel comfortable making these very personal decisions for you. If more than one person is named and the family cannot come to an agreement as to what your care should be, they may end up gridlocked, and you are the one who suffers.  This may also lead to delay in making the decision as the medical providers have to access who can make the decision based upon your family make-up, all while your medical care needs to be addressed.

Create a plan for your healthcare when you are creating or updating your estate plan. It will give you the peace of mind that, even in the worst of situations, your loved ones will know what you wanted to occur clearly and be able to go forward in following your wishes.

Reference: Kiplinger (April 29, 2021) “Now Is the Time to Protect Your Health Care Decision-Making Rights”

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