Estate Planning for Beginners Part 3: Powers of Attorney
June 29, 2011
Once you are secure in the knowledge that you’ve provided for your family and ensured that your wishes for the distribution of your hard-earned fortune are clear, it’s time to take steps to ensure that YOU will be protected and financially secure during your lifetime. It is not uncommon for seniors to need help with the finer details of their finances as they age, or in rarer circumstances for someone who is injured or incapacitated to require an agent to make financial decisions for them. A Power Of Attorney is the document that gives your chosen agent permission to make choices on your behalf, as well as giving instructions as to how those choices should be made.
Here are some of the most important things you should know about your Power of Attorney:
- A Power of Attorney is only effective during your lifetime; it gives your agent (or attorney-in-fact) the power to act for you while you are alive.
- A Power of Attorney can be created to go into effect immediately or only become effective when you become incapacitated. This latter Power of Attorney is called a Springing Power of Attorney because it “springs” into effect once it is proven that the predetermined conditions (generally incapacity of you, the principal) have been met.
- A Power of Attorney can be revoked at any time so long as you have mental capacity.
- A Power of Attorney is for financial and legal issues only. A health care agent is appointed in a separate document (to be discussed in our next blog post.)
Because your Power of Attorney grants your agent-in-fact such broad powers it is of the utmost importance to choose an agent who will not only be able to make wise decisions for you, but who will also have your best interests at heart. While a Power of Attorney does grant an agent very broad powers, there are ways to build a system of checks and balances into the document; some of these include requiring your agent to keep detailed records and present these records to the principal (you) or other named individuals, or using restrictive language in the document itself which sets limits on the agent’s power.
Executors and Agents: Choosing Your Own Replacement
October 9, 2010
When people think about estate planning they generally think about inheritance, or taxes, or even guardianship—but rarely are the words “executor” or “agent” the first ones that come to mind. And yet, choosing your executor or your agent is one of the most important decisions you’ll ever make.
Your executor is the person who carries out the instructions in your will. You may spend hours (sometimes months or even years) agonizing over inheritance plans and making decisions; but in the end, when the time comes for all of those decisions to be implemented, you’re not going to be around. If there are any questions to be answered or clarifications to be made they’re going to fall to your executor.
Your agent is the person who—depending on whether the document is a health care directive or a financial power of attorney—will make your important financial or health care decisions when you are unable. This person is your proxy during your life, signing checks on your behalf or talking to doctors about your treatment.
Considering all of this, it is understandable why so many people have trouble naming an agent or executor. It’s not easy to choose your own replacement, so to speak. But the most difficult decisions are often the most important. If you are a parent of more than one child then you know about the sibling fights that can erupt seemingly out of nowhere, even in loving and agreeable families. This is especially true when there is any uncertainty about what mom or dad’s true wishes were. The right agent or executor can relieve much of that uncertainty.
So how do you choose the right agent or executor?
First of all, think it through carefully. Choose someone reliable, whose decisions you trust. You’ll want someone who’s careful; and you’ll want to choose someone who isn’t already overloaded, because they’ll need to have time to do a thorough job. Choose someone who knows you and who knows your family; a familiar face will be comforting in hard times. On the other hand, nominating a financial institution rather than a personal friend can work out well under the right circumstances, but research your choices carefully.
If there isn’t one clear choice you may decide to nominate two people to make decisions together. This can be a good alternative if the two work well together and share your values, but it can also be a recipe for disaster, so be sure to build in some protections: instead, consider naming an uneven number of agents or executors to prevent tie-decisions, or nominate a mediator or tie-breaker who can step in to prevent serious disagreements from having to be decided in court. If you wish to include the power to make family gifts, special legal considerations come into play: talk to your attorney about gifting powers if you wish to include them in your documents. They can often be very helpful, especially if you wish to delegate the authority to qualify you for a long term care subsidy under the Medi-Cal program.
What To Do When Your Kids Don’t Like Your Will
October 4, 2009
In an ideal world elderly parents and their adult children always get along, and when those parents pass away their children quietly and respectfully follow their wishes regarding the distribution of their estate. Unfortunately, we don’t always live in an ideal world, and inheritance and estate planning can often cause tension between parents and children before the parents have even reached retirement age!
What are your options when you know your kids won’t like what you’ve put in your will or trust? Many people choose to simply keep their wishes secreted away in a safety deposit box until they’ve passed away and then let everyone fight it out on their own; but this only puts off the bad feelings and can often cause lasting rifts among siblings. This strategy of secrecy also doesn’t address what happens if you become incapacitated and need one of your trustees or agents (in all likelihood one of your children) to take over your affairs.
A better option than secrecy may be to invite your children to your final meeting with your estate planning attorney. If the attorney is willing, and if you have good relationships with your children, this may be a good move. It could give you an opportunity to share your plans in the presence of a knowledgeable professional who is on your side; it also gives your children the opportunity to ask questions and get clear and immediate answers. More often than not tension about mom and dad’s estate plan stems from a lack of understanding, or a worry that mom or dad have been taken advantage of.
Such a meeting might be especially valuable where you have remarried and plan to provide for your new partner in your plan, before providing for children, either yours or your new spouse’s. A meeting might help explain your wishes. Ask your attorney for his or her view on this when you discuss your plan. While a family meeting is not for every familiy, still for many it can be reassuring, educational, and put everyone one the same page while moving into the future.