Wednesday, December 30, 2015

5 Common Mistakes with Old Estate Plans

By:  Susan M. Graham, Certified Elder Law Attorney, Senior Edge Legal, Boise, Idaho

Small mistakes in estate planning can result in unintended transfers, out of date beneficiary designations and other unhappy surprises.

Protect yourself and your family so nothing falls through the cracks.

1. You don’t update your estate plan after a divorce and remarriage. If this happens, your ex-spouse may end up with some of your assets if you die without making changes. What is the solution? Change the beneficiary on life insurance and retirement accounts to the new spouse. Sign new powers of attorney for finances and health decisions, to give the new spouse the right to help you if you are unable to take care of your affairs due to illness.

2. You don’t update your estate plan after the death of a spouse. Once one spouse dies, the surviving spouse needs to look at the planning documents to be certain they still fit. Often after a death, the family dynamics shift in an unanticipated way, with children failing to help, being demanding or just troublesome. At a minimum, check to see the beneficiary designations are still correct, and your financial and health power of attorney agents are still the right people.

3. Your Personal Representative / Trustee dies before you do. Now what? Who will take their place? If you do not have a back up / alternate person named, the Court will ultimately decide who takes over if you are ill or when you die. To stay in control, you must update your papers to nominate a back up to handle your affairs.

4. You bought a new house and forgot to put it in your Trust name. Oops. That means when you die, it will be necessary to go to court to have your name removed from the deed. This added expense could have been avoided, if the deed was retitled in the name of your trust.

5. Your existing plan is structured to avoid death taxes, but the law changed and now you don’t have a taxable estate. To avoid death taxes that existed in the past, you may have limited the surviving spouse’s access to funds after the first death. Death taxes no longer apply to most people. Previously, there was a death tax on estates exceeding $1 million. Now the death tax does not apply until an estate exceeds more than 5 million dollars.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Estate Planning Includes Future Living Plans As Well

By: Susan M. Graham, Certified Elder Law Attorney, Senior Edge Legal, Boise, Idaho

There is a new book, Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande.  The author is a physician concerned about improving lives as people age.

As we get older we fall apart.  This is normal.  “Our functional lung capacity decreases, our bowels slow down.  Our glands stop functioning.  Even our brains shrink. ... The earliest portions to shrink are generally the frontal lobes, which govern judgment and planning, and the hippocampus, where memory is organized.  … By age eighty-five, working memory and judgment are sufficiently impaired that 40 percent of us have textbook dementia.”[1] 

As people age and wind down they face boredom, loneliness and helplessness.  The alternative is to create a world that offers spontaneity, companionship and a chance to have a reason to live, feeling meaningful and worthwhile.   Life is finite.  Why not create a plan that allows for each individual to continue to shape their lives according to their own priorities.  What can be done to make their lives better? 

How to get started?  Have a conversation with family and friends about your last phase of life choices.  If time becomes short, what is most important to you, what are your fears about what lies ahead, what kinds of tradeoffs are you willing to make, how do you want to spend your time, who do you want to make decisions if you can’t?[2] 

How comforting it is to know you have made a plan for the inevitable, rather than slide into the future with no plan and no guidance for those who want to help.  I encourage you to have that conversation.


[1] Being Mortal, Atul Gawande, page 31

[2] Being Mortal, Atul Gawande, page 182

Friday, August 28, 2015

My Husband Died. Do I Need to Probate His Estate?

By:  Susan M. Graham, Certified Elder Law Attorney, Senior Edge Legal, Boise, Idaho 

It depends. 

If a deed to the home or other real property is titled “George and Sally, Husband and Wife” it will be necessary to “probate” George’s estate to remove his name and put the deed in just Sally’s name..

Probate is a process where Sally, the surviving spouse, files a variety of papers at the court and she asks to be allowed to manage her husband’s affairs. A judge will sign an Order that gives her the power to sign on behalf of her deceased husband. Once she has that power she can sign a new deed putting the real property in her individual name. If she does not probate George’s estate, Sally will not be able to sell the home or other real property. Why? It takes two signatures to sell the property. Both owners, George and Sally, need to sign the deed, but without a probate, Sally has no legal authority to sign on behalf of her deceased husband, George.

If the husband’s name was not on a deed, but the total value of all his other assets titled in just his name, such as vehicles, bank and brokerage accounts and other investments exceeds $100,000, his estate must also go through the probate court.

Usually it is easy to collect life insurance, annuities and retirement accounts, if a beneficiary was listed to receive that asset at death. Sally, the surviving spouse, can just call the company that holds the asset and they will send a form to complete and return with a certified copy of the death certificate. The company will then send a check to Sally.

If there are joint bank accounts, the surviving spouse should have no trouble continuing to use that account. Often the social security number of the husband was used as the tax identification (ID) number for the account. The tax ID number should be changed to the wife’s social security number.

George and Sally could have planned ahead with a qualified estate planning attorney and eliminated the cost and time it takes to probate George’s estate.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Estate Planning for Same-Sex Married Couples

By:  Susan M. Graham, Certified Elder Law Attorney, Senior Edge Legal, Boise, Idaho 


The legal rights for married same-sex couples shifted in lots of ways with the June 26, 2015 United States Supreme Court decision Obergefell v. Hodges.

Starting with estate planning, married individuals will be able to inherit property from a spouse without paying any death taxes. The surviving spouse will have priority over other family members to administer a deceased spouse’s estate, bring wrongful-death actions, and make medical decisions.

As married persons, same-sex couples have the same property rights in assets accumulated during a marriage as all other married persons. This means divorce laws will apply when a marriage does not work out.

Social security spousal and survivor benefits are available to each spouse. When a spouse dies, the surviving spouse can receive the deceased spouse’s social security benefit, if that benefit is higher than the surviving spouse’s benefit

Married same-sex couples may file joint returns for both federal and state taxes.

Some same-sex couples entered into “domestic partner” agreements as a way to obtain benefits, such as health insurance, for their spouse/partner. A number of large employers, Verizon, Delta Air Lines and IBM for example, provided domestic partner benefits to employees living in states where same-sex marriage was not recognized. The continuation of these benefits after this Supreme Court decision is in question, now that same-sex marriage is recognized in all 50 states.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Watch Out - Don't Fall

By: Susan M. Graham, Certified Elder Law Attorney, Senior Edge Legal, Boise, Idaho 

Falling injuries requiring medical attention occur for 115 people in 1,000 adults age 75 and older.  About 40% of those over 75 fall at least once a year.  If the person is hospitalized, only half of that number will be alive a year later.  Every 18 seconds, an older adult is treated in an emergency department for a fall.  More than 90% of hip fractures among older adults are the result of a fall. 

There are many reasons for a fall that are age-related:  osteoporosis, slowed protective reflexes, poor eyesight, medication side effects, less coordinated gait, loss of muscle tone and strength and a drop in blood pressure upon arising.  

It is possible to reduce the risk of falls with maintaining muscle strength and improving balance.  “Some age-related loss of balance is inevitable, but some is reversible.”[1]  Dr. Laurence Rubenstein suggests two self-help tests: 

         • With someone ready to steady you if you need, stand with your feet together and close your eyes.  How long before you begin to lose your balance? 

         •  Stand on one leg behind a chair without holding on.  If you cannot do this for 30 seconds, you need to improve your balance.  If you try this with your eyes closed, see how long you can remain stable.  A 25-year-old can do it for about 30 seconds, but a 65-year-old may last only a few seconds. 

What can you do if you need help with balance?  Look for local balance or “Fit & Fall” classes in your area.  Classes are often offered at the local library or community center.  Don’t become a statistic. 

[1] Dr. Laurence Z. Rubenstein, Chairman of Geriatrics at the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine, “The Far-Reaching Effects of a Fall”, by Jane E. Brody, The New York Times, March 9, 2015

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Oh-Oh! Seems Your Aging Relatives Need Help. What Should You Do?

By:  Susan M. Graham, Certified Elder Law Attorney, Senior Edge Legal, Boise, Idaho

Over coffee, a friend, Alan, told me he is flying to Baltimore in two days to visit his elderly bachelor uncles.  The uncles, Sam (age 85) and George (age 78), have always lived together in the family home.  A niece, who looked in on the uncles and lived just 10 minutes away, died last year leaving no one nearby to help.  George will be discharged from the hospital next week after back surgery.  He wants to go back home.  Sam called Alan stating he can’t provide the care George will need and asked Alan to help. 

Alan was overwhelmed about what to do.  I asked him a few basic questions: 

1) Have the uncles signed legal papers that identify the people they want to help? 

At a minimum each uncle needs:

  • A health power of attorney so someone can talk to the medical people on his behalf;
  • A “living will” that conveys his end-of-life preferences for care; and
  • A financial power of attorney giving someone the ability to do modest business for the uncle. 

Alan does not know what the uncles have for paperwork.  He agreed that if his uncles don’t have these papers, they need them to give Alan the legal power to help.

2) What arrangements are being made to provide for a safe transition for George to his home or possibly another location?  

Alan had no idea.  I suggested he contact a Geriatric Care Manager and arrange for a “Care Management Assessment.”  This assessment is a road map created by a professional that lists steps to take to provide a safe and appropriate living arrangement that works for both George and Sam.  Geriatric Care Managers are usually Registered Nurses or Social Workers.  I referred Alan to the website for the National Association of Geriatric Care Managers (www.caremanager.org) to do a search for “Baltimore.”   The Care Manager can provide an “Assessment”, make any arrangements that are needed, be an advocate for George, accompany him to any medical meetings and then report back to Alan. 

3) What are the uncles’ finances?  What is their income, do they have long term care insurance, what type of health insurance coverage do they have to supplement Medicare, what are their assets and liabilities?  Again, Alan did not know.  He always felt it rude to ask, and his uncles never volunteered the information.   I explained to Alan he needs this information to help his uncles and if needed, figure out how to pay for costs of caregivers coming to the home or the expense of an Assisted Living Facility or Skilled Nursing Home. 

Lastly, I referred Alan to an Elder Law attorney to meet with his uncles to discover any other needs.  At their meeting, they can explore different techniques to deal with potential problems that can occur as they age.  A great resource to locate attorneys who specialize in helping people like his uncles is the website for the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (www.naela.org).

Alan told me he felt so much better and relieved, now that he has a plan and the resources to help him.  

I don’t suppose this is a problem in your family?


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Button Collection in Your Estate Plan

By:  Susan M. Graham, Certified Elder Law Attorney, Senior Edge Legal, Boise, Idaho 

What have you collected over your lifetime – buttons, baseball cards, Jim Beam bottles, thimbles, salt and pepper shakers, egg beaters, poker chips...?  The list is endless.  Your collection could be just a curiosity with little value (except to you), or it could be worth $100,000 or more. 

What will happen to these possessions after your death?

The collections should be addressed in your estate plan.   There are three basic choices. 

  1. If you believe a family member or friend is interested in the items, you can specify in your planning papers that this person is to receive this distribution.If it costs money to insure, store, display and maintain the collection, you may want to provide the funds to cover these expenses for a number of years into the future.
  2. Sell the items.If this is your choice, and the items are unique, it is helpful to supplement your estate planning documents with a reference to at least two professionals who are familiar with the collection items.This way a knowledgeable person can assist whomever administers your estate to sell the items.
  3. Donate the collections to a charity.The best practice is to talk with the non-profit first to determine their interest and see if it matches your wishes.In addition, the charity may require added funds to maintain the collection and without those funds, they may not be willing to accept the gift. 

A client recently told me it takes a lot of work to die.  He is right.  No matter.  You had fun for years acquiring items to add to your collections.  It will give you satisfaction to spend a fraction of your time collecting to put in place a plan for your treasures.


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Married - Let Uncle Sam Pay You More Social Security

By:  Susan M. Graham, Certified Elder Law Attorney, Senior Edge Legal, Boise, Idaho

A married couple planning for their retirement may want to consider strategies that maximize the Social Security income for both spouses, and for the survivor. 

Married couples should consider a number of variables before making a claim for their Social Security benefits.  These include:

            Who is the higher-earning spouse?

            What is the age of each spouse?

            Does a spouse want to keep working until age 70?

            What is the anticipated life expectancy of each spouse?

            What other sources of income are available to the couple after age 62? 

Do you know long you will live?  New mortality tables prepared by the Society of Actuaries determined a woman age 65 today will live to 88.8 years (= 23.8 more years), and a man age 65 is expected to live to 86.6 years (= 21.6 more years).[1]  

An easy way to explore the Social Security choices is to look at examples for a couple approaching retirement. 

1.  Maximize the Survivor Benefit. 

Both Frank and Betty are now age 60.  Frank will receive Social Security benefits of $2,500 (100%), if he applies at his full retirement age of 66.  If he files at age 62, he will receive 75% or $1,875.  If he waits to apply until he reaches age 70, he will receive 132% or $3,300.  Betty stayed home until the kids were out of high school, so her work history is shorter than Frank’s.  If she claims Social Security at age 66, her payment would be $1,400.  The examples below assume a cost of living for Social Security that results in a benefit increase of 2.8% annually. 

Frank and Betty Die at Age 95[2]

Assume they both apply for their benefits at age 62 and both die at age 95. They will receive a total of $2,062,000 in Social Security monthly payments.  If Betty waits to apply for Social Security until age 66 and Frank applies at age 70 and they both die at age 95, they will receive a total of $3,128,000, or an extra $1,066,000.

Frank Dies at Age 70 and Betty Dies at Age 95

When Frank dies, Betty, as the surviving spouse, will receive 100% of the benefits Frank originally applied for, which is the benefit he was receiving at his death.  If both Frank and Betty applied for benefits at age 62, then Frank dies at age 70, and Betty dies at age 95, the total Social Security Benefit received by both Frank and Betty would be $1,456,000.  If Betty waits to apply for Social Security until age 66 and Frank applies at age 70, then Frank dies at age 70, and Betty dies at age 95, they will receive a total of $2,060,000, or an extra $604,000. 

2.  Claim and Suspend.[3] 

If the higher earning spouse wants to work past age 66, and the lower earning spouse wants to stop working and collect Social Security, the “claim and suspend” technique may be a good choice. 

How does this work?  

Doris is age 62.  Based on her work history, if she claims at age 62, she will receive a Social Security Benefit of $563.  If she waits to claim at age 66, her Social Security Benefit will be $750. 

Sam is age 66.  Based on his work history, if he claims at age 66, his Social Security Benefit will be $2,000 per month. 

Sam “claims” his benefit at age 66 but “suspends” (delays receiving) the benefit.  Doris can claim a spousal benefit based on Sam’s work history and she will receive $700 per month.  This is $137 more than she would receive if she claimed her own benefit at age 62 ($700 - $563 = $137).

At age 70, Sam “activates” (begins to take) his claimed benefit and, because he has delayed receiving his benefit until age 70, he receives $2,640 per month – an increase of 132% ($2,640 - $2000).  Doris continues to receive $700 per month. 

If Sam dies before Doris, then she will receive 100% of his benefit, or $2640, adjusted for inflation for the rest of her life.

To find out what is the best election for each married couple, they may want to talk to their CPA, financial advisor, or go to the Social Security website.  Do a Google search “Social Security Retirement Planner Benefits For Your Spouse.” 

The proper timing for claiming Social Security benefits can put thousands of extra dollars in a family’s pocket. 


[1] “How to Make Money Last for a Longer Lifetime”, The Wall Street Journal, November 1, 2014, page B8.

[2] “Social Security Planning for Couples:  Maximizing Survivor Benefits”, Horsesmouth LLC, by Elaine Floyd, CPA, September 23, 2013.

[3] “Social Security Tips for Couples”, Fidelity Viewpoints, May 2, 2014.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

You Are Single - How Does Social Security Fit Into Your Estate Plan?

By:  Susan M. Graham, Certified Elder Law Attorney, Senior Edge Legal, Boise, Idaho

Retirement has many parts.  How much predictable income you receive when you are no longer working is a critical concern, and Social Security is part of that retirement income picture.

If you have not signed up for Social Security retirement benefits, stop and think about it before you make your irreversible election.  There are a variety of choices, and some will give you up to 30% more money from Social Security.  The challenge is to decide what fits best for you. 

There are many variables that impact the amount you will receive from Social Security. Some of those variables include (1) your age when you make the election; (2) your history of earnings; and (3) if you were divorced after 10 or more years, and never remarried.

This article will address the age you begin taking Social Security.  

Your benefit amount is locked into the starting date you select: (1) age 62; (2) your retirement age (ranging between age 65-67); and (3) age 70.   If you take your benefit at age 62, you will receive 75% of the full retirement amount, and if you wait to take your benefits until age 70, you will receive 132% of your retirement benefit.  Here is an example:  A baby boomer earned the maximum social security throughout her career and turned 62 in the year 2013.  If she signs up for Social Security at:

  1. Age 62 - she will receive $1,913 (75% of $2,550) monthly for the rest of her life
  2. Age 66 - she will receive $2,550 (100%)
  3. Delaying until age 70 - she will receive $3,366 (132% of $2,550) 

Assuming the retiree lives another twenty years, she will receive a TOTAL benefit from Social Security (ignoring a cost of living adjustment) if she retires at:

  1. Age 62 -> $459,120 ($1913 x 12 months x 20 years)
  2. Age 66 -> $612,000 ($2550 x 12 months x 20 years)
  3. Age 70 -> $807,840 ($3366 x 12 months x 20 years)

Waiting until age 70 means she will receive almost double the retirement benefit compared to starting at age 62.  To locate the Social Security Calculator on the government website, Google “Social Security Quick Calculator.”  It is worth the time it takes for you to make this important election that will impact on your future.  Does it make sense for you to be part of the 65% who take benefits at age 62 and miss out on hundreds of thousand of dollars of potential benefits?[1]  You decide.


[1] “The Smart Investor, 5 Social Security Facts You Need to Know,” by Tom Halloran, October 28, 2014, U.S. News and World Report

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

There is a New Way to File a Complaint with Medicare

By: Susan M. Graham, Certified Elder Law Attorney, Senior Edge Legal, Boise, Idaho

People covered by Medicare occasionally want to complain to Medicare to contest hospital discharge orders, nursing home care, home health services and hospice programs, all paid for by Medicare.

Effective August 1, 2014, the toll-free phone numbers to call have been changed for filing a Medicare complaint. If you are an Idaho Medicare beneficiary and you wish to file a complaint about the quality of care, or to file an appeal, call this toll-free number: (877) 588-1123.

Each state has a quality improvement organization. The formal name is “Quality Improvement Organization (Beneficiary and Family Centered Care).” The purpose of this organization is to work with providers on issues such as reducing hospital readmissions, prevent infections and review beneficiary complaints. In the past, there has been a perception that a conflict of interest existed because the prior organization that handles complaints also advised the providers (hospitals, nursing homes, etc.) With this new system, Medicare beneficiary appeals and complaints will go to independent regional contractors. Lavanta, the contractor that covers Idaho, is based in Maryland and handles the Northeastern and Western states.

Health care is an important part of estate planning. Save this phone number with your health information or paste it on the back of your Medicare card.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

There is a Fun Side to Estate Planning

By: Susan M. Graham, Certified Elder Law Attorney, Senior Edge Legal, Boise, Idaho

When you set up an estate plan, you sign a Last Will and Testament as one of many documents. It takes work to meet with an attorney, make decisions and finally sign all of the papers.

You can also make a wish. Do you have a something on your “bucket list” that you really want to accomplish? If you are over age 65, you may find help to make your life-long wish come true.

Apply for a “Wish of a Lifetime”. Their mission is to foster respect and appreciation for seniors by granting life-enriching wishes. The list of wishes granted are endless - from going to Disneyland, attending a Green Bay Packers game, a hot air balloon ride, experiencing zero gravity, attending a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert, learning to play the piano, reconnecting with loved ones, publishing a book – the list goes on and on.

Go to their website www.seniorwish.org and learn how to apply. Start now so you have time to experience the magic of your “wish”.

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