Five Steps to Estate Planning for Seniors
1. Understanding the Family Dynamics
The first step in an elder law trusts and estates matter is to gain an understanding of the clients family dynamics. If there are children, which is usually the case, we need to determine whether or not they are married. Is it a first or second marriage? Do they have any children from a previous marriage or do their spouses? What kind of work do they do, and where do they live? Do they get along with each other and with the parent clients? We are looking to determine which family members do not get along with which others and what the reasons may be. This goes a long way toward helping us decide who should make medical decisions and who should handle legal and financial affairs. Should it be one of them or more than one? How should the estate be divided? Is the client himself in a second marriage? Which children, if any, are his, hers, or theirs? Sometimes all three instances may occur in the same couple. Here, further exploration of the family functioning will be needed as the potential for hurt feelings, conflicts of interest, and misunderstandings multiplies. In addition, great care must be taken to develop a plan for management, control, and distribution of the estate that will not only be fair to the children from a previous marriage but will be seen to be fair as well. At times, the assistance of the professional advisor in acting as trustee may be invaluable in helping to keep the peace between family members. Finally, this step will also flesh out whether there are any dependents with special needs and which family members and assets might be best suited to provide for such children.
2. Reviewing Existing Estate Planning Documents
The second step in an elder law trusts and estates matter is to review any prior estate planning documents the client may have, such as a will, trust, power of attorney, health care proxy and living will, to determine whether they are legally sufficient and reflect the clients current wishes or whether they are outdated. Some basic elder law estate planning questions are also addressed at this time such as:
- Is the client a US citizen? This will impinge on the clients ability to save estate taxes.
- Is the client expecting to receive an inheritance? This knowledge helps in preparing a plan that will address not only the assets that the client has now but what they may have in the future.
- Does the client have long-term care insurance? If so, the elder law attorney will want to review the policy and determine whether it provides an adequate benefit considering the clients other assets and income, whether it takes inflation into account, and whether it is upgradable. This will allow the practitioner to decide whether other asset protection strategies may be needed now or later.
- Does the client need financial planning? Many clients that come into the elder law attorneys office have never had professional financial advice or are dissatisfied with their current advisors. They may need help understanding the assets they have or with organizing and consolidating them for ease of administration. They may also be concerned with not having enough income to last for the rest of their lives. The elder law attorney will typically know a number of capable financial planners who are experienced with the needs and wishes of the senior client, including (1) secure investments with protection of principal, and (2) assets that tend to maximize income.
3. Reviewing the Clients Assets
The third step is to obtain a complete list of the clients assets, including how they are titled, their value, whether they are qualified investments, such as IRAs and 401(k)s and, if they have beneficiary designations, who those beneficiaries are. Armed with this information, the advisor is in a position to determine whether the estate will be subject to estate taxes, both state and federal, and may begin to formulate a strategy to reduce or eliminate those taxes to the extent the law allows. This will often lead to shifting assets between spouses and their trusts, changing beneficiary designations, and, with discretion, trying to determine which spouse might pass away first so as to effect the greatest possible tax savings. Ideally, the attorney should have the client fill out a confidential financial questionnaire prior to the initial consultation.
4. Developing the Estate Plan
The fourth step is to determine, with input from the client, who should make medical decisions for the client if they are unable to and who should be appointed to handle legal and financial affairs through the power of attorney in the event of the clients incapacity. Next, we will consider what type of trust, if any, should be used, whether a simple will would suffice, who should be the trustees (for a trust) or executors (for a will), and what the plan of distribution should be. In order to avoid a conflict, the trustees who are chosen in lieu of the grantor should be the same persons named on the power of attorney. At this point, great care should also be taken to ensure that the feelings of the heirs will not be hurt. Good estate planning looks at the clients estate from the heirs point of view as well as the clients. For example, if there are three children, it may be preferable that one be named as trustee or executor, as three are usually too cumbersome and if the client chooses only two, then they are leaving one out. If there are four or five children, we prefer to see two trustees or executors chosen. This way, the pressure will be reduced on just the one having to answer to all the others. More importantly, the others will feel far more secure that two siblings are jointly looking after their interests.
If the distribution is to be unequal, it may need to be discussed with the affected children ahead of time to forestall any ill will or even litigation after the parents have died. By considering the relative ages of the children, where they live, and their relationships amongst each other and with their parents, the advisor will generally find a way to craft a plan that accommodates the needs and desires of all parties concerned. Some of the techniques we find useful in this context are to offer a delayed distribution, such as twenty percent upon the death of the grantor, one-half of the remaining balance after five years, and the remainder after ten years. These same percentages may also be used at stated ages, such as thirty, thirty-five, and forty. Also, when leaving percentages of the estate, unless it is simply to the children in equal shares, it is often useful to determine the monetary value of those percentages in the clients current estate. This will allow the client to see whether the amount is truly what they wish to bequeath. Percentage bequests to charities should be avoided so that the family may avoid having to account to the charity for the expenses of administering the estate.
In terms of the type of trust, we are generally looking at several options for most clients. It is important to determine whether there should be one trust or two. In order to avoid or reduce estate taxes, there should be two trusts for spouses whose estates exceed or may at a later date exceed the state and/or federal estate tax threshold. Should the trust be revocable or irrevocable? The latter is important for protecting assets from nursing home expenses subject to the five-year look-back period. Primary features of the irrevocable Medicaid trust are that neither the grantor nor the grantors spouse may be the trustee and that these trusts are income-only trusts. Most people choose one or more of their adult children to act as trustees of the irrevocable trust. Since principal is not available to the grantor, the client will not want to put all of their assets into such a trust. Assets that should be left out are IRAs, 401(k)s, 403(b)s, etc. The principal of these qualified assets are generally exempt from Medicaid and should not be placed into a trust, as this would create a taxable event requiring income taxes to be paid on all of the IRA. If the institutionalized client has a community spouse, up to about one hundred thousand dollars may also be exempted. Notwithstanding that the home is exempt if the community spouse is living there, it is generally a good idea to protect the home sooner rather than to wait until the first spouse has passed, due to the five-year look-back period. It should be noted that the look-back means that from the time assets are transferred to the irrevocable trust, it takes five years before they are exempt, or protected from being required to be spent down on the ill persons care before they qualify for Medicaid benefits. What if the client does not make the five years? Imagine that the client must go into the nursing home four years after the trust has been established. In such a case, by privately paying the nursing facility for the one year remaining, the family will be eligible for Medicaid after just the remaining year of the five-year penalty period has expired.
Although the Medicaid trust is termed irrevocable, the home may still be sold or other trust assets traded. The trust itself, through the actions of the trustees, may sell the house and purchase a condominium in the name of the trust so that the asset is still protected. The trust may sell one stock and buy another. For those clients who may wish to continue trading on their own, the adult child trustee may sign a third party authorization with the brokerage firm authorizing the parent to continue trading on the account. The trust continues to pay all income (i.e., interest and dividends) to the parent grantor. As such, the irrevocable trust payments should not affect the clients lifestyle when added to any pensions, social security, and IRA distributions the client continues receiving from outside the trust. It should also be noted that while no separate tax return is needed for a revocable trust, the irrevocable trust requires an informational return which advises the IRS that the income is passing through to the grantors and will be reported on their individual returns.
If there is a disabled child, consideration will be given to creating a supplemental needs trust, which will pay over and above what the child may be receiving in government benefits, especially social security income and Medicaid, so that the inheritance will not disqualify them from those benefits.
Finally, with the size of estates having grown today to where middle class families are leaving substantial bequests to their children (depending, of course, on how many children they have), the trend is toward establishing trusts for the children to keep the inheritance in the bloodline. Variously termed inheritance trusts, heritage trusts, or dynasty trusts, these trusts may contain additional features, such as protecting the inheritance from a childs divorce, lawsuits, creditors, and estate taxes when they die. The primary feature of all of these trusts for the heirs, however, is to provide that when the child dies, in most cases many years after the parent, the hard-earned assets of the family will not pass to a son-in-law or daughter-in-law who may get remarried, but rather to the grantors grandchildren. On the other hand, if the client wishes to favor the son-in-law or daughter-in-law, they may choose to provide that the trust, or a portion of it, continue as an income only trust for their adult childs surviving spouse for their lifetime, and only thereafter to the Grantors grandchildren.
5. Applying for Medicaid Benefits
In the event the client requires home care or institutionalized care in a nursing home facility, an application for Medicaid benefits may be required. Due to complex asset and transfer rules, the application should be made with the aid of an experienced elder law attorney. Again, it is useful in this context for a confidential survey of the clients assets, as well as any transfers of assets, to be filled out prior to the initial consultation. This form of financial survey will be significantly different from the one used for estate planning purposes. As a combined federal and state program, Medicaid asset and transfer rules vary significantly from state to state. A few techniques, nevertheless, will be widely applicable. First, in the event an adult child takes the parent into their home in order to care for them in their later years, a housing and care agreement should be executed so that assets may be legitimately moved from the parent to the child prior to any nursing home care. The adult child will be required to report any payments received under the agreement as earned income on their tax returns. Also, since the family home is usually the most significant asset, consideration will need to be given as to whether the home should be deeded to the clients adult children while retaining a life estate in the parent or whether the irrevocable Medicaid trust should be used to protect the asset