What to Include in a Letter of Instruction

A letter of instruction can be a beneficial piece in estate planning. It is an informal document that will give your loved ones important information about personal and financial matters after your death. Letters of instruction are not legally binding and do not replace your need for a will or a living trust, however it can be a nice complement to those documents. The informal nature allows you to create the letter on your own and change it whenever necessary. It is important to keep the letter up to date, as life circumstances change over time. Let’s look at some of the information that may be included in a letter of instruction.

1. Funeral and Burial Arrangements

The first thing you may want to include in your letter of intent is information about your funeral and burial arrangements. Be sure to include any plans you’ve already made, or what your wishes are as this can be very beneficial to grieving family members. Information about the type of funeral service you’d like, including who should officiate the service and special things to be included like music selections, can be a part of your letter of instruction. If you prefer to be cremated rather than buried, be sure to include that in your letter.

Another helpful inclusion would be a list of people you want to be contacted when you pass, and contact information if available. You may also include your wishes for donations to specific charities in your memory.

2. Financial Information

Information about your bank accounts, assets you hold title to, and other accounts can greatly help family members when trying to carry out the provisions of your estate plan. Be sure to include names and phone numbers of professionals who can help locate your accounts or who helped you plan. The location of other important documents should also be included with the letter of intent. These could include but are not limited to birth certificates, social security account information or statements, marriage license, divorce documents, and military paperwork. In addition, be sure to leave behind information related to mortgages and other debts.

3. Digital Information

These days, many of our accounts have transitioned to the digital world. Therefore, leaving behind information about your digital assets in your letter of intent becomes more important. This should include usernames and passwords for digital accounts, social media accounts, and the devices themselves. It is important not to leave family members guessing on this information.

4. Personal Items

Personal items can be a source of contention among family members when a loved one dies. A letter of intent can provide details about who will receive personal effects, including collections, important personal items, and other things that may not have monetary value, but do have sentimental value. In this section you can also include information about the care of the pets you may leave behind. This section of your letter may include personal statements about your wishes and hopes for the future and can address specific family members.

A letter of intent can be a very real source of peace and comfort to your family members in their time of grief. It can be difficult to think about getting started on a letter of this nature, as none of us like to think about our own death. However, if you consider the items to include and create a plan, a letter of intent can often write itself. Taking this step can alleviate much stress and many family squabbles about what you leave behind.

A letter of intent is an important piece of your overall estate plan and should be written with the help of an attorney to make sure the letter compliments and does not contradict your estate plan. If you would like help creating your estate plan or a letter of intent, please feel free to contact us.

You Have a Will, is That Enough?

Roughly half of all Americans don’t have a will, so if you’ve already taken this vital step to protect your assets and successors then congratulations are in order – you’re already ahead of the curve. While a will is a necessary document that every person who owns assets should have, it is still a relatively simple document that may not cover everything you want it to. You may want to consider creating an estate plan that involves the use of a living trust, plus other important documents like a power of attorney for finances and health care directives. 

To over-simplify it, an estate plan is a more comprehensive way than a will to instruct how your estate is to be distributed after your death, and how your assets should be managed if you become disabled and unable to make financial or health care decisions. Estate plans can save you and your successors substantial amounts of money in court costs, legal fees, and taxes. Consider the following items when creating an estate plan:

Do you have/are you expecting children? This is one of the most important factors to consider when creating an estate plan. Beyond appointing a guardian to take care of minor children, you may also need to appoint a conservator who will manage the assets your successor(s) will inherit when they reach the age of majority.

You may have assets that already contain a beneficiary designation such as a transfer on death (TOD) account. If not, then your will may be used to instruct who will receive such assets.

Minimize probate and maximize privacy. An estate plan that uses a living trust will allow your heirs to move through the administration process as quickly and efficiently as possible. With only a will, a process called probate must be used at your death. Information brought forward in probate court is public knowledge and all of the terms of your will plus the assets you own will become part of the public record. Also, probate can be very expensive. Even an uncontested probate could take longer than a year to pass through probate court and attorney’s fees and court costs can start to add up. Constructing an estate plan with an attorney before probate can help avoid most of these costs and loss of privacy.

Consider your digital information. One thing that’s often forgotten, but necessary in today’s digital age, is what happens to your online information after you die? Many of our day-to-day activities are conducted online and this may present issues for your family after you die. For example, if you invest or bank online, it can be an incredible hassle for your heirs to decode your online financial life. Consider storing your passwords in a safe place and then give access through a power of attorney to someone you trust who will be able to help your family manage your online footprint. An estate planning attorney will be able to sit down with you and go through your online accounts and help you decide which ones will need attention in the event of your death or disability.

Location and size of your estate. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 doubled the size of the federal estate tax exemption to $11.2 million for a married couple. That means unless your estate is larger than $11.2 million, you may be exempt from paying federal taxes on it. However, depending on where you live you may be subject to state-level estate taxes. Idaho does not, but there are currently 17 other states, and the District of Columbia, that impose some sort of estate or inheritance tax.

There are many other factors to consider when constructing an estate plan, some of which can be complicated. Please do not hesitate to reach out to our office if you wish to meet with an estate planning attorney to discuss how best to protect your legacy.

Dangers of a Springing Financial Power of Attorney

A financial power of attorney allows a person to “stand in your shoes” to act on your behalf if you can’t — this person (known as an agent) can pay your bills, take care of your banking needs, and otherwise take care of your business if you can’t.  If you don’t have a financial power of attorney and you become unable to take care of your financial matters, your loved one may have to go to court to get conservatorship over your financial matters.  And any time a court is involved, usually lots of money and time is wasted.  Having a financial power of attorney is a crucial part of any estate plan.

Often times, people approach me to draft a “springing” financial power of attorney. While they like the idea of a person taking care of their finances if they can’t, they don’t trust their named agent enough to make the document effective immediately, as they worry about the agent abusing the power or even possible theft.  They want the document to only be effective if they are incapacitated.  While this sounds reasonable, sometimes there is a danger that a springing power of attorney will not work.

For example:  Michael was having a wonderful time in Florida while he waited for his Idaho house to close. Unfortunately he took a bad fall and ended up in a Florida hospital. He had his Idaho power of attorney, but the problem was that is was “springing” — the power of attorney was only effective if he was incapacitated. Michael’s capacity was fine, it was just that he was unable to come back to Idaho to take care of business because he was injured.  His “springing” power of attorney was useless to help him.

But even if Michael was incapacitated, there could be further problems.  A doctor would still probably have to certify that he could no longer make his own decisions and reduce this opinion into a written letter or document. Sometimes doctors even refuse to even do this.  Either way, this would cause delay and uncertainty, when swift action was required instead. 

The most effective power of attorney is effective immediately to avoid these problems.  If a named agent is not trustworthy enough to make the power of attorney effective immediately, this is usually a good sign that they should not be named as an agent at all!

An experienced attorney can help you find your way through many such pitfalls. Please give us a call to learn how we can help.

Make Sure Your Wishes Are Carried Out

The importance of making end of life preparations cannot be stressed enough. Many put off making these plans thinking there is always time. The sad reality is that none of us are guaranteed time. Others may be bothered by the thought of death itself and allow this to paralyze them when it comes to making plans and getting their affairs in order for the end of life. However, most of these same people have wishes and thoughts about where and to whom their assets are distributed. Many of them also have ideas about what they do and do not wish to have happen when their life ends. Lack of preparation and planning means that these wishes likely will not be honored. In addition, it causes additional strain and stress on the people who are left to sort out the affairs. An example of this is the story of Debbie.

Debbie was a teacher who had been retired for several years. She was aging alone. She never married and had no family around. She did have a small circle of friends. After retirement, Debbie’s health progressively declined and she had more and more difficulty caring for herself. After a few years, Debbie passed away in her home.

Previously, she had conversations with a handful of her friends telling them her wishes for the possessions and assets she had. Because of these conversations, these friends each thought she had made the proper preparations to ensure these wishes would be followed. Unfortunately, Debbie had none of the necessary end of life documents that would allow her wishes to be followed. Her friends were left to try to piece together a puzzle that only many missing pieces. Her burial was prolonged and what she did have after paying expenses to settle the estate and bury her will not end up where Debbie wanted. This scenario can, however, be avoided.

If you or your elderly loved one have not made end of life preparations, make time to do so as quickly as possible. An elder law attorney can help guide you in what you should be doing, and can make sure the proper documents are in place to carry out your wishes regarding your health, care you want (or don’t want) to receive, and who should receive your money and possessions.

The first key document to be sure you have is a will or a living trust. A will allows you to specify where your money and possessions should go upon your passing. It also allows you to choose an executor of the estate. The executor will take care of managing the estate, paying debts, and distributing property as specified. A will only takes effect upon your death.

A living trust does everything a will can do, but also allows for you to choose someone to manage your assets if you become incapacitated because it is effective during your lifetime. A living trust also provides privacy, as it is not subject to court proceedings that become open to the public like a will is. There are numerous other advantages to a living trust that can be explored with the help of an attorney.

A living will and health care power of attorney are two additional documents that take effect while you are alive. A living will specifies your wishes for end-of-life medical care. For example, you can specify whether you want to be kept alive by artificial means if you are in a terminal state. A health care power of attorney provides for someone to make health care decisions for you, in case you aren’t able to make decisions yourself. Both of these documents outline your wishes about medical treatment and care when you can’t make them for yourself, so it’s important to seek legal guidance to make sure these documents are drafted properly.

A financial power of attorney should be in the plan as well. A financial power of attorney names an agent to handle your finances in the event you are no longer able to.  An agent can open and close bank accounts, write checks, and sell property if you choose to allow them the authority to do so. Like the health care power of attorney, the financial power of attorney should be created with legal advice to make sure your wishes regarding your finances are properly documented.

Having an estate plan is necessary for you to have a say in what happens if you become sick and cannot make decisions for yourself, and to determine what happens with your money and your belongings after death. An estate plan also helps those who are left to deal with the estate to do so in a more simple and straightforward manner.

If you have any questions about something you have read or would like additional information, please feel free to contact us.

Medicare and Medicaid: Unlocking the Mystery

Medicare and Medicaid have long been a mystery to many. In fact, it can baffle and confuse even some of the smartest citizens. You might have thought, “I don’t need to worry about this right now.” However, it is never too early to gain a little understanding and awareness that just might help you help an aging loved one or yourself down the road. As the saying goes, “Time flies,” and you will be there sooner than you think. Let’s break it down and learn some of the differences and basics of Medicare and Medicaid to unlock the mystery.

Medicare

Medicare is a health insurance program provided through the federal government. In order to receive Medicare, a person must meet certain requirements. A person must be 65 years old or older or have a severe disability. In order for a disabled person under the age of 65 to be eligible for Medicare, they must have received Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) for two years. In order to be eligible a person must have Social Security retirement benefits or Social Security disability benefits. Because Medicare is run and administered by the federal government, it is uniform from state to state. If a person meets Medicare eligibility requirements, they can receive Medicare no matter their income or assets. Costs for Medicare are based on the recipient’s work history. This means that costs are determined by the amount of time a person paid Medicare taxes. These costs like all insurance include premiums, copays, and prescriptions.

Medicare can be confusing because there are four parts. The commercials talk about Parts A, B, C, D. What does it all really mean? Parts A, B, and D can be somewhat simplified. Part A is hospital insurance, Part B is medical insurance, and Part D is prescription drug coverage. Parts A and B are covered in Original Medicare offered by the government. Part C is often called the Medicare Advantage Plan. This is a private health plan. The Medicare Advantage Plan or Medicare Part C plan are required to include the same coverage as Original Medicare but usually also include Part D as well. It is important to do your homework on these plans to find what works best and is most cost effective for you.

Medicaid

Medicaid is a health care assistance program. Its guidelines come from the federal government, but it is administered by each state. Medicaid is for people who cannot afford to pay for their care on their own. It is based on income and assets, and is available to people who belong to one of the eligible groups. The eligible groups are children, people with disabilities, people over age 65, pregnant women, and the parents of eligible children. Seniors who require nursing home care can qualify for Medicaid and only pay a share of their income for the nursing home. Medicaid then pays the rest.

Dual Eligibility

A person can be eligible for both Medicare and Medicaid and can have both. The two programs work together to help the recipient best cover the expenses of health care. For example, Medicare costs include premiums, copays, and deductibles. Full Medicaid benefits can cover the costs of Medicare deductibles and cover the 20% of costs not covered by Medicare. Medicaid can also help with Medicare assistance and may cover costs of premiums for Part A and/or Part B.

Although Medicaid and Medicare can be quite confusing, it is important at a minimum to know the basics. When you or someone you love is eligible or in need of the benefits, there are organizations willing to help and your elder law attorney is also a valuable resource.

If you have any questions about something you have read or would like additional information, please feel free to contact us.

The Wonderful Benefits of Walking in Idaho

Walking. It is one of the most effective ways to maintain your overall health as you age. It provides a myriad of benefits both physical and mental. Grab a buddy and walk. It can be your spouse, your neighbor, your children, a friend, your dog or any combination of these. If you don’t have a dog consider adopting a middle-aged slightly overweight pooch and both of you walk. Help each other to get more fit. Dogs are wonderful companions and can reduce your stress levels and they are dedicated to wanting to walk! Of course prior to embarking on a new walking program and particularly if you already have health complications talk to your physician first about how best to approach a walking routine. They may have important input or restrictions for you to consider.

Steady walking over time will help you to lose weight which can, in turn, lower your blood pressure, reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, and help your overall circulation. In the time it can lower your risk of cardiovascular disease. Walking helps you to build muscle tone in your legs and even in your abdomen. It is an excellent way to help prevent the loss of muscle mass that occurs with aging. As walking is weight bearing (you being the weight) it can also reduce the risk of bone loss. 

Another benefit to a regular thirty minute walk each day is an increase in balance and stability. It is well documented that falling down as we age can have disastrous consequences. As you walk you engage the hips, stomach and other muscles which keep the walking joints flexible. For anyone experiencing arthritis, it is important to keep moving and walking is a low impact activity that is good for your joints. The more you walk the better it can become for your balance, stability, and flexibility. 

You can also improve the quality of your sleep by walking. Many people find as they age that they have trouble with uninterrupted, restful sleeping patterns. Physical exertion (not exhaustion) is one of the keys to promote a good night sleep. The mental benefits of walking also aide in a balanced nights rest. The simple act of walking allows you to unwind your brain; no cell phones allowed unless for emergency purposes! Being out in the natural world helps your brain to reboot and stay young. It can slow mental decline which is a big factor for positive self esteem and confidence. If at all possible walk in nature rather than on a treadmill at the gym. On inclement weather days a treadmill is fine but the benefits for your mental well being are multiplied when out of doors. Remember to get your walking done in the daylight hours as exertion just prior to sleep does not promote restfulness and it can be dangerous to walk outdoors in the dark.

Aging and the advent of depression is a very real issue facing many seniors. Many are losing relatives and spouses, friends and co-workers. Loneliness can become a problem. Getting to doctors appointments might require someone to drive you. You may be facing money challenges or health insurance coverage problems. There are so many big decisions that come at you in a moment when you would just prefer things to stay the same and be predictable. This can all be overwhelming and can bring about serious depression. Walking is an aerobic activity and aerobic activities release endorphins into your system. Endorphins are the feel happy chemical of your body. The simple act of taking a walk on a daily basis can ward off depression as you age. 

So get yourself a good pair of sturdy shoes with a proper fit and get moving. It is one of the most important things you can do for your well being. Walking is wonderful for people of all ages but particularly seniors. It can help you physically, make you happier and keep you mentally sharp as you live out your retirement years. 

Alzheimer’s 101 – Understanding the Basics

What is Alzheimer’s Disease?

Alzheimer’s disease is defined as an irreversible, progressive mental deterioration that can occur in middle or old age. It is the most common form of dementia.

What causes Alzheimer’s Disease?

Alzheimer’s disease is caused by a generalized deterioration of the brain. The disease is caused by a combination of factors, including genetic, lifestyle, and environmental factors. There are a variety of factors that put people at risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Age and genetics are risk factors. As people age or if there is a family history of Alzheimer’s, there is a greater risk of the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. People with Down Syndrome or mild cognitive impairment have a greater chance of having Alzheimer’s as they age. If a person has experienced past head trauma, this puts them at risk for Alzheimer’s.

The risk of Alzheimer’s is also related to lifestyle and heart health. Those with poor heart health and an unhealthy lifestyle put themselves at greater risk for the disease.

Finally, women are more likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s than men. Some causes and risk factors of Alzheimer’s disease are impossible to change or control, but lifestyle and heart health are things that can be controlled.

What are the symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease?

Alzheimer’s disease, in general, destroys memory and thinking skills. In the late stages, a person with Alzheimer’s is unable to carry out even the simplest tasks. A person who is experiencing the onset of Alzheimer’s will experience mild symptoms, which may include increasing forgetfulness or mild confusion. As the disease progresses, the memory loss increases, especially recent memories. The progressive nature of the disease causes memory to continue to deteriorate throughout the rest of the person’s life. The ability to think and reason are impaired until even performing familiar tasks can become impossible.

A person with Alzheimer’s disease often experiences changes in behavior. They may do things out of their character for them prior to the disease. Common changes in behavior include aggressive behavior, agitation and irritability. Alzheimer’s disease symptoms can include depression, mood swings, and difficulty sleeping. The deterioration of the brain causes a person to change in ways that are difficult and trying for all involved.

How is Alzheimer’s Disease diagnosed?

Alzheimer’s disease is complicated and getting to a diagnosis is a long process. If a person or their family suspects the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, it is important to understand that there will be many steps and visits with doctors to determine if in fact it is Alzheimer’s. There is no single test. The first step for the doctor will be to get a comprehensive medical history. The doctor can use this history to determine if the patient has risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease. The next step is to complete testing on mental status and mood of the patient. Beyond this there will be physical and neurological examinations. If the doctor suspects Alzheimer’s, the tests will continue with blood tests and brain imaging. The goal is to rule out other causes to be sure that Alzheimer’s disease is the correct diagnosis.

What treatment options are available?

Alzheimer’s disease has no cure. Treatment options are meant to delay or slow the progression of the disease. Medication is one treatment option. The medicines are used to treat the cognitive symptoms. As the disease progresses, symptoms continue to worsen. Medication is unable to stop the damage that Alzheimer’s disease causes to brain cells, it can help stabilize the patient or slow the progression for some time.

Behavioral symptoms can be treated with some medication as well, but there are other ways to address these symptoms. The first thing is to know and be aware of triggers. By knowing triggers, there are a variety of coping strategies that can be used. Some of these include avoiding confrontation, making sure the Alzheimer’s patient gets adequate rest, monitoring comfort, and creating a calm environment. Many are now looking at herbal remedies, dietary supplements, and “medical” foods as possible treatments to enhance memory. There is no conclusive evidence that these things work.

Alzheimer’s disease is complicated. The causes and symptoms vary from one person to the next as does the progression of the disease. Being educated about the disease and care options is the key to helping a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease. Doctors, therapists, and elder law attorneys can guide families through the difficult process of caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s.

If you have any questions about something you have read or would like additional information, please feel free to contact us.

5 Things to Include in an Estate Plan

Estate planning is important for people of all ages, but as we age, the need for planning becomes even more critical. Many people avoid estate planning, because they do not want to think about the end of life, failing health or disability. Others believe that an estate plan is only for rich people. However, an estate plan is helpful for the senior adult and their families regardless of overall wealth.

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Top Three Reasons You May Want to Create a Trust and Avoid Probate

There are a lot of good reasons to set up a trust as part of your estate plan: providing for a special needs child, more control and flexibility in distributing your assets upon your death, greater control over incapacity planning, and estate tax avoidance.

But there is another great reason to create a trust:  to avoid probate court.

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