What estate planning documents should I have?A comprehensive estate plan should include the following documents, prepared by an attorney based on in-depth counseling which takes into account your particular family and financial situation:
A Living Trust can be used to hold legal title to and provide a mechanism to manage your property. You (and your spouse) are the Trustee(s) and beneficiaries of your trust during your lifetime. You also designate successor Trustees to carry out your instructions in case of death or incapacity. Unlike a will, a trust usually becomes effective immediately after incapacity or death. Your Living Trust is "revocable" which allows you to make changes and even to terminate it. One of the great benefits of a properly funded Living Trust is the fact that it will avoid or minimize the expense, delays, and publicity associated with probate.
If you have a Living Trust-based estate plan, you also need a pour-over will. For those with minor children, the nomination of a guardian must be set forth in a will. The other major function of a pour-over will is that it allows the executor to transfer any assets owned by the decedent into the decedent's trust so that they are distributed according to its terms.
A Will, also referred to as a Last Will and Testament, is primarily designed to transfer your assets according to your wishes. A Will also typically names someone to be your Executor, who is the person you designate to carry out your instructions. If you have minor children, you should also name a Guardian as well as alternate Guardians in case your first choice is unable or unwilling to serve. A Will only becomes effective upon your death, and after it is admitted by a probate court.
A Durable Power of Attorney for Property allows your agent to carry on your financial affairs in the event that you become disabled. Unless you have a properly drafted power of attorney, it may be necessary to apply to a court to have a guardian or conservator appointed to make decisions for you during a period of incapacitation. This guardianship process is time-consuming, expensive, emotionally draining and often costs thousands of dollars.
There are generally two types of durable powers of attorney: a present durable power of attorney in which the power is immediately transferred to your agent (also known as your attorney in fact); and a springing or future durable power of attorney that only comes into effect upon your subsequent disability as determined by your doctor. Anyone can be designated, most commonly your spouse or domestic partner, a trusted family member, or friend. Appointing an agent assures that your wishes are carried out exactly as you want them, allows you to decide who will make decisions for you, and is effective immediately upon subsequent disability.
The law allows you to appoint someone you trust to decide about medical treatment options if you lose the ability to decide for yourself. You can do this by using a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care or Health Care Proxy where you designate the person or persons to make such decisions on your behalf. You can allow your health care agent to decide about all health care or only about certain treatments. You may also give your agent instructions that he or she has to follow. Your agent can then ensure that health care professionals follow your wishes. Hospitals, doctors and other health care providers must follow your agent's decisions as if they were your own.
A Living Will informs others of your preferred medical treatment should you become permanently unconscious, terminally ill, or otherwise unable to make or communicate decisions regarding treatment. In conjunction with other estate planning tools, it can bring peace of mind and security while avoiding unnecessary expense and delay in the event of future incapacity.
Some medical providers have refused to release information, even to spouses and adult children authorized by durable medical powers of attorney, on the grounds that the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, prohibits such releases. In addition to the above documents, you should also sign a HIPAA authorization form that allows the release of medical information to your agents, your successor trustees, your family and other people whom you designate.
How do I name a guardian for my children?If you have children under the age of eighteen, you should designate a person or persons to be appointed guardian(s) over their person and property. Of course, if a surviving parent lives with the minor children (and has custody over them), he or she automatically continues to remain their sole guardian. This is true despite the fact that others may be named as the guardian in your estate planning documents. You should name at least one alternate guardian in case the primary guardian cannot serve or is not appointed by the court.
What does my estate include?
Your estate is simply everything that you own, anywhere in the world, including:
- Your home or any other real estate that you own
- Your business
- Your share of any joint accounts
- The full value of your retirement accounts
- Any life insurance policies that you own
- Any property owned by a trust, over which you have a significant control
Why is it important to establish an estate plan?
Sadly, many individuals don’t engage in formal estate planning because they don’t think that they have “a lot of assets” or mistakenly believe that their assets will be automatically shared among their children upon their passing. If you don’t make proper legal arrangements for the management of your assets and affairs after your passing, the state’s intestacy laws will take over upon your death. This often results in the wrong people getting your assets as well as higher estate taxes.
If you pass away without establishing an estate plan, your estate would undergo probate, a public, court-supervised proceeding. Probate can be expensive and tie up the assets of the deceased for a prolonged period before beneficiaries can receive them. Even worse, your failure to outline your intentions through proper estate planning can tear apart your family as each person maneuvers to be appointed with the authority to manage your affairs. Further, it is not unusual for bitter family feuds to ensue over modest sums of money or a family heirloom.
What is estate planning?
When someone passes away, his or her property must somehow pass to another person. In the United States, any competent adult has the right to choose the manner in which his or her assets are distributed after his or her passing. (The main exception to this general rule involves what is called a spousal right of election which disallows the complete disinheritance of a spouse in most states.) A proper estate plan also involves strategies to minimize potential estate taxes and settlement costs as well as to coordinate what would happen with your home, your investments, your business, your life insurance, your employee benefits (such as a 401K plan), and other property in the event of death or disability. On the personal side, a good estate plan should include directions to carry out your wishes regarding health care matters, so that if you ever are unable to give the directions yourself, someone you know and trust can do that for you.
Should I wait until I need Medicaid benefits before I see an elder law attorney?No, if you anticipate needing Medicaid at any point in the foreseeable future, it’s prudent to seek the advice of a qualified elder law attorney. There are steps you can take to protect your assets which may not be available when you actually need Medicaid. Some of those steps may include transferring your assets or establishing trusts. An elder law attorney with expertise in Medicaid planning can evaluate your situation and advise you on the most prudent steps to take in order to preserve your rights and maximize benefits.
What are some criteria to look for when selecting a nursing home?First, how is the nursing home ranked by accreditation agencies or state regulators? Have there been violations or complaints against the nursing home? How does the nursing home rank when compared with other homes in the area? You should also visit the facility in person and request a tour.
Another important factor to consider is location. Is the nursing home located in an area that is convenient for family and friends to visit? Would family members be more likely to visit a nursing home located in another area?
Before choosing a nursing home, take a tour and ask for references of family members of current residents. If possible, take the tour at an unscheduled time, so that you know that what you are seeing isn’t staged for your benefit. During the tour, look carefully at the interactions between staff and patients. Does the staff seem caring and concerned? Do the residents seem content? What is the quality of the food served?
Choosing a nursing home can seem overwhelming at first, but often after visiting a few and evaluating their quality of care, the decision becomes easier.
Can my children take money out of our joint account without affecting my eligibility?If a child removes money from your joint account, that could be considered a transfer to him. Currently, Medicaid has a “look back” period on transfers of assets within the past 60 months. This means that any gifts or other transfers of assets you made in the 60 months before you applied for Medicaid will be assessed in order to determine your eligibility. If you did transfer assets in the five year period before applying for Medicaid, you could be subjected to a penalty. Therefore, if you made a transfer of assets in the past five years, you should not apply for Medicaid without consulting an elder law attorney because the penalties could be severe.
How long will it take to become eligible for Medicaid?There’s no simple answer as to how long it might take an individual to qualify for Medicaid. There are many variables in every situation that must be taken into consideration and ultimately affect the eligibility timeline, including the state in which you live, whether your application is complete, your assets, income and expenses, any asset transfers you’ve made to individuals or trusts, and more. Before applying for Medicaid, you should consult an elder law attorney in your area. The attorney can help you understand both eligibility and the application process, and should be able to give you an estimate of the time frame you can expect.
Is Medicaid Planning legal?Medicaid planning is legal. Elder law attorneys work to protect clients’ assets within the bounds of the law. Congress allows citizens to qualify for Medicaid after meeting certain requirements, and those requirements could be changed if Congress felt they were being abused. Medicaid planning is akin to tax planning - both are legal.
Doesn’t Medicare provide coverage for long term care?Medicare does not provide coverage for long-term care, such as nursing home care. Medicare will pay for up to 100 days of skilled nursing care per illness. A patient must be hospitalized for the illness, and the patient must receive a high level of care in a nursing home that couldn’t be provided at home or on an outpatient basis. After 20 days of nursing home care, there is a large copayment required of the patient for the remainder of the stay.
Medicare will also pay for home health benefits if you are housebound and if a doctor has ordered home health services for you, at least some of which are skilled. Medicare will pay for up to 35 hours of services per week, and patients only have to pay for 20 percent of the cost of medical supplies and equipment.
What is Medicaid Planning and what does it involve?Medicaid is a federal program that will pay for nursing home care. Medicaid is not to be confused with Medicare, which in most cases will not pay for extended nursing home care. Medicare is a program which people pay into during their working years, while Medicaid is a needs-based program intended to help impoverished Americans with medical expenses.
What is long-term care insurance and is it really necessary?
Long-term care insurance covers the risk that you may at some point in your life be placed into a nursing home by paying for some or all the expenses associated with nursing home care. It also frequently covers assisted living care or care in your home. Long-term care insurance can be a very valuable tool that can help you avoid depleting your estate in order to pay for nursing home care. Nursing homes greatly vary in cost depending on the quality of the home and the geographic area of the country in which the care facility is located. At a minimum, you can expect to pay several thousand dollars a month for decent nursing home care, which can rapidly deplete an individual’s savings.
If I transfer title to real property to my Living Trust can the bank accelerate my mortgage?Federal law prohibits financial institutions from calling or accelerating your loan when you transfer property to your living trust as long as you continue to live in that home. The only exception to the federal law, enacted as part of the 1982 Garn-St. Germain Act is that it does not provide for such protection for residential real estate with more than five dwelling units.
Do I have to transfer all my assets to my Living Trust?Assets with beneficiary designations such as a life insurance policy or annuity payable directly to a named beneficiary need not be transferred to your Living Trust. Furthermore, money from IRAs, Keoghs, 401(k) accounts and most other retirement accounts transfer automatically, outside probate, to the persons named as beneficiaries. Bank accounts that are set up as payable-on-death account (POD for short) or an "in trust for" account (a "Totten Trust") with a named beneficiary also pass to that beneficiary without having to be titled into your trust. It is important, however, to seek the counsel of an experienced estate planning attorney who can advise on and assist with transferring necessary assets to your trust.
Will I lose any control over my property if I create a Revocable Living Trust?
Creating a Revocable Living Trust and transferring your assets to the name of that trust will generally not affect your ability to control such assets. During your lifetime when you are mentally competent, you have complete control over all of your assets. As the trustee of your trust, you may engage in any transaction that you could before you had a Living Trust. There are no changes in your income taxes. If you filed a 1040 before you had a trust, you can continue to file a 1040 when you have a Living Trust. There are no new Tax Identification Numbers to obtain. Because a Living Trust is revocable, it can be modified at any time or it can be completely revoked if you so desire. Upon your incapacity, the individuals you designate will be able to transact on your behalf according to the instructions you have laid out in the Living Trust. Upon your passing, the Living Trust becomes irrevocable and the successor trustee(s) you have designated will then proceed to implement your wishes as directed.
What are the advantages of having a Living Trust?Like a will, a Living Trust is a legal document that provides for the management and distribution of your assets after you pass away. However, a Living Trust has certain advantages when compared to a will. A Living Trust allows for the immediate transfer of assets after death without court interference. It also allows for the management of your affairs in case of incapacity, without the need for a guardianship or conservatorship process. With a properly funded Living Trust, there is no need to undergo a potentially expensive and time consuming public probate process. In short, a well thought out estate plan using a Living Trust can provide your loved ones with the ability to administer your estate privately, with more flexibility and in an efficient and low-cost manner.
What is a Revocable Living Trust?A properly drafted Revocable living trust (RLT) is a powerful estate planning tool that allows you to remain in control of your assets during your lifetime, have them managed during incapacity, and efficiently and privately transfer them to your loved ones at death according to your wishes.
Sometimes referred to simply as a Living Trust, an RLT holds legal title to your assets and provides a mechanism to manage them. You would serve as the trustee and beneficiary of your trust during your lifetime. You also designate successor trustee(s) to carry out your instructions for how you want your assets managed and distributed in case of death or incapacity.
In order for the Living Trust to function properly, you need to transfer many of your assets to your Living Trust during your lifetime. The fact that it is "revocable" means that you can make changes to it or even terminate it at any time.
What is Probate and why does everyone want to avoid it?
When a loved one passes away, his or her estate often goes through a court-managed process called probate or estate administration where the assets of the deceased are managed and distributed. If your loved one owned his or her assets through a properly drafted and funded Living Trust, it is likely that no court-managed administration is necessary, though the successor trustee needs to administer the distribution of the deceased's assets. The length of time needed to complete probate of an estate depends on the size and complexity of the estate as well as the rules and schedule of the local probate court.
Every probate estate is unique, but most involve the following steps:
- Filing of a petition with the proper probate court
- Notice to heirs under the will or to statutory heirs (if no will exists)
- Petition to appoint Executor (in the case of a will) or Administrator for the estate
- Inventory and appraisal of estate assets by Executor/Administrator
- Payment of estate debt to rightful creditors
- Sale of estate assets
- Payment of estate taxes, if applicable
- Final distribution of assets to heirs
- Filing of Accounting to the Commissioner of Accounts
Special Needs Planning
Our family is wealthy. Do we still need to create a Special Needs Trust?
Yes, you should still establish a Special Needs Trust to protect your disabled beneficiaries from potential creditors. For example, if your disabled beneficiaries are ever sued in a personal injury action, the assets in the trust would not be available to the plaintiffs. Furthermore, because the funds in the Special Needs Trust are not countable as available assets for purposes of determining government benefit eligibility, more of your money can be used for those supplemental expenditures that will allow your disabled beneficiary to enjoy a higher quality of life. Otherwise, much of your assets will be used to pay for private care benefits that are extremely expensive and can drain even significant sums of money over time.
Who can establish a Special Needs Trust?While Special Needs Trusts are typically established by parents for their disabled children, any third party can establish a Special Needs Trust for the benefit of a disabled beneficiary. It is important to seek the assistance of competent counsel when creating a Special Needs Trust because a poorly drafted Trust can easily be subject to “invasion” by the government agencies that provide benefits. Our law firm has the experience and the expertise to establish effective Special Needs Trusts for anyone who wishes to provide for a disabled beneficiary.
When should a Special Needs Trust be established?Generally, a Special Needs Trust should be established no later than the beneficiary’s 65th birthday. If you have a disabled or chronically ill beneficiary, you may want to consider establishing the Special Needs Trust at an early age. One benefit of having the Trust in place is that if the disabled beneficiary becomes the recipient of funds such as gifts, bequests or a settlement from a lawsuit, they can immediately be transferred to the Special Needs Trust without affecting that individual’s eligibility for government benefits.
What is the purpose of a Special Needs Trust?While you can certainly bequest money and assets to those with special needs, such a bequest may prevent them from qualifying for essential benefits under the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medicaid programs. However, public monetary benefits provide only for the bare necessities such as food, housing and clothing. As you can imagine, these limited benefits will not provide your loved ones with the resources that would allow them to enjoy a richer quality of life. Fortunately, the government has established rules allowing assets to be held in trust, called a Special Needs or Supplemental Needs Trust for the benefit of a recipient of SSI and Medicaid, as long as certain requirements are met.
Planning for Incapacity
What is a HIPAA Authorization?Some medical providers have refused to release information, even to spouses and adult children authorized by the Healthcare Power of Attorney on the grounds that the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, prohibits such releases. Therefore, as part of your incapacity planning, you should sign a HIPAA authorization form that allows the release of medical information to your agents, successor trustees, family or any other individuals you wish to designate.
What is a living will or advance medical directive?A living will or advance medical directive informs others of your preferred medical treatment should you become permanently unconscious, terminally ill, or otherwise unable to make or communicate decisions regarding treatment. In conjunction with other estate planning tools, it can bring peace of mind and security while avoiding unnecessary expense and delay in the event of future incapacity.
What is a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care?The law allows you to appoint someone to decide about medical treatment options if you lose the ability to decide for yourself. You can do this by using a "Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care" or Health Care Proxy where you designate the person or persons to make such decisions on your behalf. You can allow your health care agent to decide about all health care or only about certain treatments. You may also give your agent instructions that he or she has to follow. Your agent can then make sure that health care professionals follow your wishes and can decide how your wishes apply as your medical condition changes. Hospitals, doctors and other health care providers must follow your agent's decisions as if they were your own.
Who may act as an agent under a Power of Attorney?In general, an agent, or attorney in fact, may be anyone who is legally competent and over the age of majority. Most individuals select a close family member such as a spouse, sibling, or adult child, but any person such as a friend or a professional with an outstanding reputation for honesty would be ideal. You may appoint multiple agents to serve either simultaneously or separately. Appointing more than one agent to serve simultaneously can be problematic because if any one of the agents is unavailable to sign, action may be delayed. Confusion and disagreement between simultaneous agents can also lead to inaction. Therefore, it is usually more prudent to appoint one individual as the primary agent and nominate additional individuals to serve as alternate agents if your first choice is unwilling or unable to serve.
Who can establish a Power of Attorney?Generally, any individual over the age of majority and who is legally competent can establish a Power of Attorney.
What is a Durable Power of Attorney?A Durable Power of Attorney is a document that empowers another individual to carry on your financial affairs in the event you become disabled or incapacitated. Without a Durable Power of Attorney, it may be necessary for one of your loved ones, including your wife or adult child, to petition a court to be appointed guardian or conservator in order to make decisions for you when you are incapacitated. This guardianship process is time consuming, expensive, often costing thousands of dollars, and it can be emotionally draining for your family.
There are generally two types of durable powers of attorney: a present Durable Power of Attorney in which the power is immediately transferred to your attorney in fact; and a springing or future Durable Power of Attorney that only comes into effect upon your subsequent disability as determined by your doctor. When you appoint another individual to make financial decisions on your behalf, that individual is called an agent or attorney in fact. Most people choose their spouse or domestic partner, a trusted family member, or friend.
How can a properly established business entity such as a corporation shield me from personal liability for business debts and o
Personal liability arising from business obligations can devastate the accumulated wealth of a lifetime of work. Personal liability may extend to business losses, but other obligations may also reach individuals, including:
- Damage awards in lawsuits
- Tax penalties
- Back wages and benefit payments
Limited liability offered by corporations and other business entities shelters business owners from personal liability. Nonetheless, if an owner or director performs certain personal acts, behaves illegally, or fails to uphold statutory requirements for corporate status, he or she may face personal liability despite the corporate shelter.
What is involved in a corporate merger?
Like most corporate law, mergers are regulated at the state level. While these laws vary by jurisdiction, many aspects of the merger process are the same across the nation. Generally, the board of directors for each entity must initially approve a resolution adopting a plan of merger that specifies the names of the entities involved, the name of the proposed merged company, the manner of converting shares of both entities, and any other legal provisions to which the corporations agree. Each entity notifies all of its shareholders that a meeting will be held to approve the merger. If the proper number of shareholders approves the plan, the directors sign the papers and file them with the state. The secretary of state issues a certificate of merger to authorize the new corporation.
Each state has its own corporate statutes that govern the procedure for mergers. Furthermore, state or federal agencies may wish to investigate the potential anticompetitive effects of a proposed merger. Because of the requirements and variables involved in merging, a corporation considering a merger should consult a lawyer who is experienced in mergers and acquisitions law.
Is it a good idea to have a Buy-Sell Agreement?
Corporations with more than one shareholder should seriously consider a buy-sell agreement. A shareholder's death, divorce, disability or termination of employment can create serious problems for a corporation and its other shareholders. A buy-sell agreement can help minimize these problems by providing for an orderly succession in such plans. Similar provisions are recommended for partnerships.
How often should a corporation hold meetings and update its minutes?
Any time a corporation undertakes a major change or transaction, it should be reflected in its minutes. In addition, meetings of shareholders and directors should take place at least annually if for no other reason than to elect new officers and directors. Failure to adhere to the formality of regular meetings can jeopardize the corporation's ability to shield its officers, directors and shareholders from personal liability for the corporation's actions.
What is a non-profit corporation?
A non-profit corporation is a corporation formed to carry out a charitable, educational, religious, literary, or scientific purpose. A non-profit corporation doesn't pay federal or state income taxes on profits it makes from activities in which it engages to carry out its objectives. This is because the IRS and state tax agencies believe that the benefits the public derives from these organizations' activities entitle them to a special tax-exempt status.
The most common federal tax exemption for nonprofits comes from Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, which is why non-profits are sometimes called 501(c)(3) corporations.
What is the difference between a joint venture and a partnership?
Joint ventures and partnerships share certain characteristics. A joint venture is a sort of partnership where two or more entities join together for a particular "short term" purpose. In both partnerships and joint ventures, each partner has equal ability to legally bind the entire entity. A partner can represent the entire organization in the normal course of business and his or her legal actions on behalf of the joint venture or partnership create legal obligations.
Though the powers of individual partners in a partnership or joint venture can be limited by agreement, such agreements do not bind third parties. Because business contacts outside of the partnership may have no knowledge of the limitations, they may be entitled to rely on the apparent authority of an individual partner as determined by the usual course of dealing or customs in the trade.
What does it mean to “pierce the corporate veil?”
Sometimes, courts will allow plaintiffs and creditors to receive compensation from corporate officers, directors, or shareholders for damages rather than limiting recovery to corporate assets. This procedure bypasses the usual corporate immunity for organizational wrongdoing, and may be imposed in a variety of situations. The specific criteria for piercing the corporate veil vary somewhat from state to state and may include the following:
- Courts may not allow owners to benefit from a corporation’s limited liability if the underlying business is indistinguishable from its owners.
- If a corporation is formed for fraudulent purposes.
- Courts may impose liability on the individuals controlling the business if a business fails to follow certain corporate formalities in areas such as record-keeping.
What is the difference between a subchapter C and S corporation?
The Internal Revenue Code allows for two different levels of corporate tax treatment. Subchapters C and S of the Code define the rules for applying corporate taxes.
Subchapter C corporations include most large, publicly-held businesses. These corporations face double taxation on their profits if they pay dividends: C corporations file their own tax returns and pay taxes on profits before paying dividends to shareholders, which are subsequently taxed on the shareholders' individual returns.
Subchapter S corporations meet certain requirements that allow the business to insulate shareholders from corporate debts but avoid the double taxation imposed by subchapter C. In order to qualify for subchapter S treatment, corporations must meet the following criteria:
- Must be domestic
- Must not be affiliated with a larger corporate group
- Must have no more than one hundred shareholders
- Must have only one class of stock
- Must not have any corporate or partnership shareholders
- Must not have any nonresident alien shareholders.
Additionally, after a business is incorporated, all shareholders must agree to subchapter S treatment prior to electing that option with the Internal Revenue Service.
What factors should be considered in choosing the type of business form for my business?Although there are many important things to think about when choosing a business form, some of the main considerations include your preference of tax treatment, how you intend to capitalize the business, whether you plan to issue stock and trade it publicly, how you intend to structure the management of your business, and issues surrounding the liability of the business owners, among other things. It is very important to plan your business and to work closely with someone who can help you choose the business form that will meet your needs.
What is business law?
Business law encompasses the many rules, statutes, codes, and regulations that are established which govern commercial relationships and provide a legal framework within which businesses may be conducted and managed. Business law is highly diverse and includes areas such as:
- business formation and organization
- transactional business law (contracts)
- business planning
- business negotiations
- mergers and acquisition