Articles Posted in Power of Attorney

Most estate planning advice stories include one theme over and over–plan early and update consistently. Because no one know what the future holds and life changes occur frequently, it is critical to ensure your legal planning will work as you want it to when you need it.

However, that does not mean that there is ever a point when it is too late and not worth crafting a plan. Taking the time to put affairs in order even in the midst of serious illness or terminal conditions can make a world of difference for a family. A recent article provides a helpful discussion that touches on some of the key issues with regard to “deathbed planning.”

Late Estate Planning
Is the individual competent to make legal decisions? One initial hurdle is identifying whether or not the ill party is still in a condition to assent to the crafting of a plan or updating of legal documents. It is important to have witnesses, verification from medical professionals, audio recordings, or other proof of competency just in case the issue is challenged down the road. If the individual is not legally competent, then the only other option is for one was previously given authority (via durable powers of attorney) to act on their behalf.

Assuming that the individual is competent or an agent exists, what are the main issues to consider during deathbed planning?

The general goal is to update an older plan or craft new one that covers all of the most fundamental issues. That includes ensuring that executors and trustees are properly named, the provisions of a will or trust documents still reflect the clients wishes, and similar matters. In addition, all beneficiary designations need to be considered. Is the beneficiary on a life insurance policy still correct?

If a plan was created years ago, there is a good chance some things have changed. For example, it is not uncommon for certain children, nieces/nephews, or grandchildren, to be named with others left out. Those not mentioned may simply not have been born at the time the original planning was conducted. Obviously, these oversights need to be corrected near the end.

Administratively, it is also helpful at this time to locate all necessary paperwork, records, and important information that will be needed for estate administration. Similarly, funeral and burial requests should be spelled out clearly. In the heart of grief, it is common for family members to disagree over even the most minor details. Preventing that possible feuding by making these wishes explicit is vital.

Of course there are many other potential issues to consider at this time. But, In short, most deathbed planning involves getting all of the “basics” correct so that assets will be transferred in the desired manner as efficiently as possible.

Celebrity estate planning complications and feuds are often used to illustrate basic planning principles or common problems. Perhaps none of those examples are as well-known, especially for New Yorkers, as the sad case of the estate of Brooke Astor. The legendary socialite and philanthropist died several years ago. Since her passing, a wide-range of claims were made regarding the distribution of her assets and criminal activity on the part of those responsible for her care and affairs in the later years of her life.

Astor reportedly suffered from Alzheimer’s at the end of her life–an affliction that similarly affects many New York seniors. Unfortunately, also like many others, it seems that her condition was abused by the very people who were supposed to look-out for her.

Astor’s son, Brooke Marshall, was criminally charged with exploiting his mother to funnel more money to himself. Marshall was ultimately convicted, along with a co-defendant, of illegally giving himself a $2 million “raise” to administer the estate. Claims also suggested that an amendment to Astor’s will in 2004 included a forged signature.

The criminal conviction actually came more than three years ago, when the pair was sentenced to serve between one to three years in jail for their conduct. However, they have yet to serve a day as various appeals are worked out.

As reported by the New York Post, Marshall was in court again a week ago. The Manhattan Supreme Court justice handling the matter allowed Marshall to remain out on bail while his final appeal request to the highest court in the state–New York’s Court of Appeals–is considered. If the Court decides not to hear the case, then Marshall and his co-defendant will be completely out of options and likely report to jail in mid-June. That would mark the end to the most drawn-out, contentious, high-profile inheritance controversy in recent New York memory.

Seamless Estate Planning
While most may not have the wealth of Brooke Astor, the other dynamics of the situation are the same for many: declining health, disagreement among children about inheritance amounts, pressure from in-laws, last-minute will changes, and more.

The general lessons are myriad. Be sure to seek out the help of legal professionals with a reputation for honest dealing and whom you trust. Be forthright about various family dynamics that may come into play in the aftermath, even if it involves difficult conversations about family members. Do not delay, as one’s health is never certain.

By following these basic principles, one can be in the best position to ensure an inheritance is handled efficiently and exactly as one wishes

Before being overshadowed by the election, the talk of the social media universe in the past week and a half was Disney’s purchase of the George Lucas film business (LucasFilm). The film company owned all the rights to the mega-popular Star Wars francise, and the purchase might mean that another Star Wars film will be in the works in coming years. Perhaps the most eye-popping part of the deal was the sale price. Disney apparently paid a staggering $4.05 billion in cash and stock for LucasFilm.

Since the deal was announced many professionals in the fields of tax and estate plannining have chimed in, noting that the decision to sell now was likely a smart one by Lucas. It will probably pay many divideds in the future for himself and his family. At a general level, by cashing out now Lucas will spare his family the very difficult and complex challenge of handling these matters upon his passing. At 68 years old, hopefully that time is still several decades in the future; however, prudent planning is timely planning. In addition, selling the company allows Lucas to spend more of his times on philanthrophy–something that he has been committed to for decades. He explained recently that he plans to donate most of his wealth to educational efforts around the world.

Beyond that, the timing of the move was likely motivated by smart assessment of the current tax climate. As recently discussed in a Forbes article on the subject, the current capital gains tax rate and brackets are set to be far less favorable in the coming year. No matter who was elected this year, increases in the tax rates to some degree were likely. However, by acting now, Lucas may have saved significant sums on taxes as a result of the immense gain in value of his company since it was founded.

Estate Planning/Transition Lessons
Of course, the savvy move by Lucas is a reminder to all residents, particularly those with businesses of their own, to think prudently about these transitions details. This is true no matter how big the business. In fact, smaller business owners often require more complex transition details. That is because, unlike LucasFilm, most business owners cannot simply sell everything to a large conglomerate like Disney. Instead, more nuanced details have to be worked out to transition an enterprise to another while ensuring resources are available for retirement and an inheritance.

If you are in this situation, please act prudently and seek out help to ensure the best is done for you and your family long-term. In many situations a combination of estate planning lawyers, tax professionals, and others are needed to ensure that everything works to maximize your interests. Considering the likely tax and legal changes on the horizon at a federal level, it is also critical to act soon to best meet your goals.

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Mystery permanently surrounded the heiress Huguette Clark–a reclusive woman whose $300 million estate is often referred to as the last collection of wealth drawn from the American “Gilded Age.” Her father was a copper magnante many decades ago and was also a former senator from Montana. He is well known as the founder of the city of Las Vegas. Huguette inherited the fortune upon his (and her mother’s) passing. However, she never sought business or public notoriety like her father. Instead, she was intimately private. In fact, she reportedly spent the last twenty years of her life inside a New York City hospital–even when she was healthy enough to live on her own.

Huguette eventually passed away in May of last year. As often happens in cases of great wealth–particularly when there is much mystery surrounding one’s life–various fights ensued over control of the fortune.

A trial in the case is set to begin soon, according to a recent NBC report on the case.

A recent accounting this week in the Surrogate’s Court found that the estate is valued at roughly $306.5 million when all of the real estate, cash, bonds, stocks, and personal property are taken into account. The largest piece of that estate is a summer home in California on 23.5 acres that is valued at nearly $85 million. In addition, she owned three New York City apartments collectively worth about $53 million. However, the estate may grow if the executor is successful in getting back more than $44 million in gifts that were allegedly given to Clark’s nurses, doctors, and the hospital where she lived in the last years of her life.

Huguette wrote two wills at age 98, several years before her passing. The first will left a few million dollars to her private nurse with the remaining going to the relatives from her father’s first marriage. Six weeks later, however, the second will was signed. This will claims that no money was left to family, instead most the inheritance was to be used for a museum or art foundation at her California estate. The second will also left funds to Huguette’s attorney, nurse, doctor, accountant, and others. An investigation was launched regarding the handling of Clark’s affairs and potential elder abuse in 2010 over suspicions of illegal conduct by her advisors, but no criminal charges were ever filed.

All the parties in the case are now prepping for trial which is slated to take place before the end of the year. However, if delays arise, which they often do in these cases, the matter might not be settled until next year.

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Some area residents may think that New York estate planning is only for married seniors who have big families and substantial wealth. Fortunately, more and more people are coming to understand that this planning is a necessity for all community members, no matter what their situation in life. The Calgary Herald recently discussed the universal applicability of estate planning by sharing the example of a thirty-six year old mother of two who was recently divorced. The woman had never before seriously considered financial matters, but everything changed following separation from her husband.

It was not long before the mother began to realize that taking care of her family was now squarely on her shoulders–necessitating prudent preparation for long-term contingencies. For example, if she were to suddenly become ill, who would take care of her children? If she became disabled, how would the family survive? The woman began considering these and similar questions before realizing that she wanted the peace of mind of knowing that she had prepared for these possibilities ahead of time. The woman visited an estate planning attorney and learned what options were available to her. She eventually purchased life insurance, disability insurance, and had legal documents drafted to ensure others could make critical decisions on behalf of her family if the need arose.

The mother’s situation is a good example of why estate planning is often particularly important for singles. Those without a partner frequently need to clearly spell out their wishes ahead of time, because fewer people may be around to speak on their behalf. For example, a thirty year old single man may get in an accident shortly before closing on his first piece of real estate. If he has taken the time to create a durable Power of Attorney, the named individual may be able to close on that new home on his behalf. There are countless similar situations that may arise where prior estate preparation can significantly affect an individual’s life.

Creating a New York estate plan is much more than simply dividing up assets upon death. Instead, it is a comprehensive contingency plan that accounts for various possible life situations and ensures that resources are available if necessary. In this way, the planning is important for all community members, whether married or single, old or young, wealthy or middle class.

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by Michael Ettinger, Esq.

Same sex couples face unique estate planning issues since, in many jurisdictions, their unions are not legally protected. New York, for example, does not permit same sex marriages although the state does recognize same sex marriages performed elsewhere (i.e., Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, Iowa and D.C.).

Living trusts are often the estate planning vehicle of choice for the GLBT community for a number of reasons.

1. They provide for your partner to be able to handle your assets should you become disabled. Powers of attorney and health care proxies/living wills are ancillary documents that also help insure that your partner will be in charge of all legal , financial and medical decision-making in the event of disability, free of interference from other family members.

2. Will planning has fallen into disfavor because (a) wills are significantly easier to challenge than trusts (b) a notice of the proceeding must be given to your closest legal heirs, providing them with an opportunity to object (c) the will is a public record, eliminating privacy, and (d) the legal process may be time consuming possibly delaying the surviving party’s access to needed funds.

3. Simply putting your partner’s name on your assets, or joint tenancy, seems to be a simple solution to many, until they learn of the pitfalls. First, for appreciated assets, such as stocks and real estate, there are tax disadvantages to receiving assets from a joint tenant. While inheriting from a will or trust at death eliminates taxable capital gains for the survivor, joint tenancy only eliminates one-half of those capital gains since you are only “inheriting” one-half of the property. Secondly, you may be exposed to the debts and liabilities of your partner. Thirdly, you lose control over where the assets go after your surviving partner dies. Perhaps you may want to provide for your partner for life, but state where the unused assets will go after he or she passes. Finally, once you make your assets joint with your partner, you may have more difficulty in getting those assets back in the event of a break up in the relationship.

4. Funeral and burial arrangements are often contentious matters. New York law allows you to designate the person you wish to have control of the arrangements as well as providing in writing the specific type of funeral and burial that you may wish.

5. On the other side of the coin, the inability of same sex couples to marry in New York does offer a couple of distinct Medicaid planning advantages in later years. Whereas for married couples the combined assets of the couple are available for the care of the ill spouse, such is obviously not the case for unmarried couples. So your assets are legally protected from your partner’s cost of care. Further, while married couples who wish to plan ahead five years be setting up a Medicaid Asset Protection Trust (MAPT) may not name each other as trustee, such is not the case for unmarried couples. So if you wish to protect your home and life savings from nursing home costs, and cannot obtain long-term care insurance for any reason, you may each establish MAPT’s for each other and need not go outside the relationship to put someone else in charge in order to protect your assets.

In our experience, crafting an estate plan for a same sex couple, that is thought through addressing all the potential social, legal, financial, health and tax issues, is a loving act that provides peace of mind knowing your choices will be legally protected and honored.

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