Category Archives: Trusts

What can families do to avoid probate court?

It is important to acknowledge that a probate court serves an important role during life and after death.  During life, a probate court (i) protects the financial assets of an individual needing protection (through a conservator) and (ii) oversees the medical and personal care needs of an incapacitated individual (through a guardian).  After death, the probate court supervises the collection and application of assets that were titled in the deceased individual’s name alone (meaning assets with no surviving joint owner or no surviving beneficiary).   In both situations, the probate court may provide valuable oversight and accountability.  Sometimes the court is needed to resolve disagreements over wills, trusts and powers of attorney, as well as to decide family inheritance feuds.

Regardless of the important role and value of probate court, some individuals prefer to stay away from the probate process if at all possible.  There are several legal tools that may be used to side-step probate court:

Powers of attorney – Powers of attorney, both medical and financial, are the two most important documents required in order to stay out of probate court during life.  A general, durable power of attorney for finances (GDPOA) nominates a trusted individual (known as the “agent” or “attorney-in-fact”) to manage legal and financial affairs for the person signing the document (the “principal”).  Medical decisions can be delegated to a patient advocate.  This is done with a durable power of attorney for health care, known in Michigan as a patient advocate designation (PAD).  It is important to note that the principal does not give up any rights or freedom by signing a power of attorney document.  The agent and patient advocate are fiduciaries who must act in the principal’s best interest and at the principal’s direction.

With a GDPOA that includes the proper language, the agent will have authority to handle real estate, financial accounts, retirement accounts, business interests, mail, motor vehicles, debts and other legal matters.  If a GDPOA is in place and provides the authority needed, it will not be necessary to ask the probate court to appoint a conservator to manage financial and legal affairs in the event of the principal’s physical or mental incapacity.

With a PAD, the named patient advocate may be authorized to make medical decisions on behalf of an individual who cannot make those decisions himself or herself.  This document also serves as a durable power of attorney for health care and for care, custody and medical treatment decisions.  This document and the powers in it are sometimes called a “living will” or an “advance directive for health care.”  The patient advocate has the authority to make a broad range of medical decisions, including decisions regarding life support, as provided in this document and in accordance with the individual’s wishes.

Trusts – Trusts are usually thought of as a type of will.  Unlike a will, however, a revocable trust operates both during life and after death.  Also unlike a will, a trust does not require probate.  The trust maker (“settlor”) sets up a document that designates an individual (“trustee”) to manage assets titled in the trust for the settlor during the settlor’s lifetime (if incapacitated).  Upon the settlor’s death, the trustee follows the trust’s instructions on distributing the trust’s assets to named beneficiaries.  As the trustee has legal authority over trust assets, the probate court is not needed to manage and distribute the assets of the trust.  This makes a trust a key tool to avoid probate during life and after death.

Beneficiary designations – Beneficiary designations may be used to transfer bank, investment and retirement accounts to specific individuals and charities upon death.  In some instances, a special kind of deed may work to transfer real estate on death.  The benefit of beneficiary forms is avoidance of probate upon the death of the account holder or real estate owner.  On the other hand, there are several disadvantages with these forms as they frequently (i) are not updated after divorces or deaths of family members, (ii) are not reviewed regularly, (iii) are filled out incorrectly, and (iv) do not coordinate with other estate plan documents.

Joint ownership – Accounts and real estate with multiple joint owners will transfer probate-free to the surviving joint owners.  Joint ownership is usually appropriate for married couples, unless it is a second, or more, marriage.  Joint ownership is not usually advisable between parents and children or other persons as this may cause tax, legal and inheritance problems.

Some things to remember:

  • Powers of attorney (medical and financial), trusts, wills and beneficiary documents should be reviewed frequently and updated as needed;
  • Each tool described above has a limited purpose and should be coordinated with other tools; and
  • It is risky to utilize these tools without consulting an attorney, CPA or financial advisor.

Gene Richards_8x10@300Norman E. Richards (Gene) is an attorney at the law firm of Cummings, McClorey, Davis & Acho, P.L.C. where he focuses his practice on estate planning and elder law.  He assists clients with the development of customized estate plans to address their specific needs, including family owned businesses, senior adults concerned about long term care needs, and special needs trusts for children with special needs.  He may be reached at (734) 261-2400 or nrichards@cmda-law.com.

Why is it not a good idea for adult children to put their names on their parents’ bank accounts?

It is fairly common for an aging parent to add a child’s name (sometimes more than one child) as a joint owner on the parent’s bank accounts.  The arrangement is usually viewed as a simple and inexpensive solution to the following concerns:

  • Someone needs to be able to pay bills when the parent is ill or hospitalized;
  • Funerals are expensive and money will be needed immediately;
  • The account will otherwise go to probate upon the parent’s death;
  • Probate is expensive and time consuming; and
  • Estate planning involves costly attorneys and fancy legal documents.

Many people are not aware of the hidden problems and risks that come with this arrangement.  What seems like a practical and inexpensive solution may actually create financial complications and ignite family conflicts.   Here are some reasons NOT to add a child’s name to a bank account:

  1. Loss of control – Adding a joint owner means the parent loses sole control of the account. Some parents are shocked to discover they are unable to remove the child’s name from the account without the child’s consent. This is a problem if the relationship sours or the child uses the money in a way the parent doesn’t like.
  2. Invitation to child’s creditors – Adding a child to an account gives the child ownership, not just access. Because the child has ownership, anyone to whom the child owes money (IRS, divorcing spouses, judgement creditors, and more) may be able to claim the funds in the account.
  3. No backup plan – If the joint owner child is ill or dies before the parent, there is no one else authorized to access the account. And adding more names to the account is not a wise decision for all the other reasons discussed.
  4. Accidental disinheritance – The trusted child may be expected to share the money with other family members according to the parent’s wishes after the parent’s death. If the parent’s wishes are not expressed in a will, then the child may claim the account and not follow those instructions.  Also, if the child dies shortly after the parent, then the account will pass to the child, become part of the child’s personal estate, and then be distributed to the child’s own family.
  5. Ignites family feuds – Other children and family members usually look suspiciously at the child who is joint on an account with the parent. There may be suspicions the child used the money personally, moved money to other accounts, or did not accurately report how much was in the account.  This may lead to fights in court or broken family relationships.

Fortunately, there are alternatives to joint ownership.  Many of the aging parent’s concerns can be solved with carefully designed powers of attorney (POAs).  These allow a trusted child to access the account without the risks that come with joint ownership.  Also, POAs identify alternates to replace the child and may require accountability and restrict what the child can do with the money.  Transfer on death designations can be used to make sure an account is distributed appropriately to other family members.   A revocable trust may also be a useful tool. An estate planning attorney should be consulted about which of these tools are best for the aging parent’s situation.  Most estate planners are reasonably priced and may well save the family from expensive legal fights in the future.

 

Gene Richards_8x10@300Norman E. Richards (Gene) is an attorney at the law firm of Cummings, McClorey, Davis & Acho, P.L.C. where he focuses his practice on estate planning and elder law.  He assists clients with the development of customized estate plans to address their specific needs, including family owned businesses, senior adults concerned about long term care needs, and special needs trusts for children with special needs.  He may be reached at (734) 261-2400 or nrichards@cmda-law.com.

Gene Richards Featured on “The Lawyers” Radio Program

Radio Show PhotoCurt Benson, an attorney in our Grand Rapids office, hosts a popular syndicated radio program, The Lawyers, which airs on Newsradio WOOD 1300 and 106.9 FM.  On the program, Mr. Benson interviews professors, judges, lawyers and lawmakers on legal issues in the news. He recently sat down with Gene Richards, a partner in our Livonia office, to discuss a variety of estate planning and elder law issues, legal updates, and cost-effective solutions.  Please click here to listen to the informative radio program.

Mr. Richards helps clients safely navigate life’s transitions through the skillful, practical, and compassionate application of comprehensive elder law and estate planning services.  He guides senior clients in planning for their future care needs, including maximizing financial resources to pay for the cost of long-term care. He takes the time to understand his clients’ needs and goals and designs practical, customized solutions for them.

Gene Richards may be reached at (734) 261-2400 or nrichards@cmda-law.com.

Virtual Currency Shouldn’t be Overlooked when Putting Together Estate Planning Documents

Gene Richards_8x10@300Virtual currency may not show up in portfolios of many senior adults, but it shouldn’t be overlooked when putting together wills, trusts and powers of attorney. Not surprisingly, a national survey on consumer use of virtual currencies found that among those 65 or older, 75 percent said they were “very unlikely” to purchase Bitcoins. However, some seniors are trendy and tech savvy and might have a virtual currency “wallet.” Here’s a well written blog article on the importance of addressing bitcoin and other virtual currencies in the estate planning process. I’ll add that it is also critical to identify all assets and resources when trying to qualify for Medicaid and VA assistance to pay for long-term care.  Without adequate planning a legal representative, whether agent under power of attorney, personal representative (a/k/a executor) of a will, or trustee of a trust will have difficulty dealing with unique property, such as virtual currency, if the owner is incapacitated or has died.

The elder law and estate planning attorneys at Cummings, McClorey, Davis & Acho, P.L.C. (CMDA) regularly assist clients in planning with unique assets, such as virtual currency.  Even if it is too late to plan, the CMDA attorneys can still help by petitioning for the appointment a conservator in the local probate courts.  Gene Richards may be reached at (734) 261-2400 or nrichards@cmda-law.com. 

Estate Planning for Older Adults

Estate Planning iPad ImageAdvocacy is an important need of older adults as they strive to preserve their independence and protect their interests.  For example, strong advocacy is needed to: protect life savings, deal with incapacity, find quality long-term care (whether at home, in assisted living or a nursing home), and qualify for government benefits to pay for long-term care (such as Medicaid and VA benefits). Elder Law attorneys use specialized legal tools and strategies to augment the “advocacy power” of older adults facing these situations. Read more

New Tools for Asset Protection and Estate Planning

Asset Protection ImageIndividuals in Michigan seeking to protect assets from creditors no longer have to transfer their assets to Delaware, Nevada or Alaska.  Effective February 5, 2017, the Qualified Dispositions in Trust Act, Domestic Asset Protection Trusts, Public Act 330 of 2016, will allow the owner of trust assets to retain and protect his or her assets from creditors, while still retaining the power to direct investment decisions, the power to veto distribution

Read more

Estate Planning: A Continuous Process

Living Trust and Estate Plan ImageEstate planning is a continuous process and estate plan documents should be reviewed at least every decade and upon any major changes in lifestyle or family structure.

A basic estate plan includes a Will, a Medical Power of Attorney, and a Durable General Power of Attorney for financial matters.

A Will addresses the distribution of assets, paying debts and taxes, and providing guardians and conservators for any minor children.

Read more