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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What If You Don’t have a Will?

Studies suggest that a majority of adults do not have an estate plan of any kind, even a will.  The issue of what happens when a person doesn’t have a will comes up frequently in our practice.  The answer to the question, which is what I’ll discuss here, provide lots of reasons to have one.  You can see a recent article entitled “Placing the puzzle pieces of long-term care and planning a will” from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for a bit more background, although state processes vary.

First, a will is a written document stating wishes and directions for dealing with the property you own after your death, also known as your “estate.” When someone dies without a will, property is distributed according to their state’s intestacy laws.  Intestacy sets who your beneficiaries will be since you haven’t chosen them, and generally are next of kin (with some wrinkles). If your next of kin is someone you loathe, or even just dislike, they may become an heir, whether you or the rest of your family likes it or not. If you are part of an unmarried couple, your partner has no legal rights, unless you’ve created a will and an estate plan to provide for them.

Intestacy rules vary greatly from state to state, especially in a community property state like Texas.  In general, intestacy laws distribute property to a surviving spouse or certain descendants. A very common exception, which many people don’t know and are surprised to learn, is that if you have children from outside of the current marriage, not everything goes to that spouse.  I frequently encounter families who assume spouse gets everything, regardless of family makeup, and this often leads to conflicts with family.

While practicing in Pennsylvania I actually had a situation in which one spouse died young without children and with living parents.  Not everything goes to the spouse in that situation, but instead, partially to spouse and the rest would have been divided between the surviving spouse and parents.  The surviving spouse was not pleased to learn that.

This may also lead to a difficult result for the beneficiary.  If they have disabilities and are using government benefits, receiving the inheritance may cause them to lose those benefits, which may be critical for that person’s care.  Wills and other estate planning documents can prevent that outcome.

If you don’t have a will, at least in Texas, it may be necessary to have a proceeding to determine who the heirs even are.  This is called an heirship proceeding and can be quite expensive as the court appoints another attorney (who you pay) to look for unknown heirs.  This whole process also adds time and uncertainty to a process which is already difficult due to the loss of a loved one.

Additionally, a will designates a person to handle the estate, often called an executor, and typically names successors should the first named person be unable or unwilling to serve.  In the absence of these directions, the heirs will have to figure it out among themselves, hopefully amicably and without litigation.

Many states also have limited proceedings that may or may not be helpful when a person doesn’t have a will.  For example, Texas has affidavits of heirship which can address retitling of land interests, such as the residence.  However, that won’t help for bank accounts.  Pennsylvania actually has a rule permitting small bank accounts to be distributed to next of kin after the funeral is paid.  That too may help, unless the account is $10,000 and is useless for land.  Many states have small estate proceedings that can work, but in practice are often cumbersome.

A much better solution: speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to have a will and other estate planning documents prepared to protect yourself and those you love.

Start by determining your goals and speaking with family members. You may be surprised to learn an adult child doesn’t need or want what you want to leave them. If you have a vacation home you want to leave to the next generation, ask to see if they want it. It may reveal new information about your family and change how you distribute your estate. A grandchild who has already picked out a Ferrari, for instance, might make you consider setting up a trust with distributions over time, so they can’t blow their inheritance in one purchase.

Determining who will be your executor is another important decision for your will. They are a fiduciary, with a legal obligation to put the estate’s interest above their own. They need to be able to manage money, make sound decisions and equally important, stick to your wishes, even when your surviving loved ones have other opinions about “what you would have wanted.”  See this article for further ideas:  https://www.galliganmanning.com/what-are-the-duties-of-an-executor/  

If there is no one suitable or willing, your estate planning attorney will have some suggestions. Depending on the size of the estate, a bank or trust company may be able to serve as executor.

The will is just the first step. An estate plan includes planning for incapacity. With a Will, a Power of Attorney, Medical Powers of Attorney and other documents appropriate for your state, you and your loved ones will be better positioned to address the inevitable events of life.

Reference: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (April 24, 2022) “Placing the puzzle pieces of long-term care and planning a will”

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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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