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Britney Spears’ Nightmare Conservatorship Underscores The Vital Importance Of Incapacity Planning—Part 2 

Since the age of 16, when she burst onto the charts with her debut single, “…Hit Me Baby One More Time,” Britney Spears has been one of the world’s most famous and beloved pop stars. Yet despite her massive fame and fortune, Britney, who is now 39, has never truly had full control over her own life.

As most familiar with pop culture know by now, Britney has been living under a conservatorship for the past 13 years. Also known as “adult guardianship,” a conservatorship is a legal structure in which the court granted Britney’s father, Jaime Spears, and other individuals nearly complete control over her legal, financial, and personal decisions. The conservatorship was initially established in February 2008 after Britney suffered a mental breakdown, which resulted in her being briefly hospitalized.



A Total Loss of Control
Back in 2008, the court-appointed Britney’s father and attorney Andrew Wallet as her co-conservators, as Britney was deemed mentally unfit to care for herself. The arrangement was only meant to be temporary, but in October of that year, the conservatorship was made long-term, and her father has remained in nearly complete control of Britney’s life ever since.

Although there has been widespread speculation that Britney’s conservatorship was abusive, the exact details of her conservatorship have been kept private. Moreover, until very recently, Britney had never spoken publicly about her life under the arrangement.

Years of Abuse and Conflict
However, as we detailed last week in part one, Britney recently testified in a court hearing during which she described a shocking pattern of abuse and exploitation at the hands of her father and others involved with the conservatorship. We also discussed how confidential court records obtained by the New York Times provided support for Britney’s claims and showed that the pop icon had expressed serious opposition to her conservatorship as early as 2014, and tried unsuccessfully on multiple occasions to have her father removed from his position.

In response, Britney’s father flatly denied any wrongdoing, and his lawyers filed a petition requesting the court investigate Britney’s allegations of abuse. Shortly after the hearing, both Britney’s court-appointed lawyer, Samuel Ingham, and Bessemer Trust, the wealth management company, which had previously signed on to be the co-conservator of Spears’ finances, asked the court to be removed from the pop star’s conservatorship.

In a follow-up court hearing held this week on July 14th, Judge Brenda Penny approved the resignation of Ingham and Bessemer Trust and granted a request by Britney to hire her own lawyer. To represent her moving forward, Britney chose Mathew Rosengart, a prominent Hollywood litigator and former federal prosecutor, as her new attorney. 

Britney, who phoned into the hearing, once again asked the court to remove her father as co-conservator, and she said that her father should be prosecuted for his alleged abuse. But Britney also reiterated that she’s not willing to undergo any more mental-health evaluations, which she called “stupid psych tests,” according to a report by NPR.

“I’m not willing to sit with anybody at this point to be evaluated,” Britney said. “I want to press charges for abuse. Instead of investigating my capacity, I want an investigation on my dad.”

Although Britney still hasn’t filed the formal legal document seeking to end her conservatorship, which is required by law, her new lawyer, who was present at the latest court hearing, told the judge he plans to file the petition to remove Jamie Spears from the conservatorship. If so, the judge could rule on the petition in the next court hearing on the conservatorship, which is scheduled for September 29.

 

Use Estate Planning To Avoid Britney’s Fate
Although we’ll have to wait to find out whether the court will allow Britney to terminate the conservatorship without undergoing another psychiatric evaluation, as we noted last week, Britney could have been saved from the years of control by her father,  if she had created a proper estate plan early on in her adult life.

In fact, using a variety of different estate planning vehicles, Britney could have not only chosen the person, or persons, who would be in charge of making decisions on her behalf during her incapacity, but she could have also created legally binding instructions stipulating how her assets and personal care should be managed during her incapacity. With the right planning, Britney could have even spelled out the specific conditions that must be met for her to be deemed incapacitated in the first place.

With this in mind, here in part two, we’ll discuss how you and your loved ones can use proactive estate planning to create a comprehensive plan for incapacity, so you can avoid suffering the same fate as Britney. And since a debilitating illness or injury could strike at any time, at any age, if you’ve yet to create your own incapacity plan, contact me, your Personal Family Lawyer® right away to get this urgent matter taken care of.

 

Planning For Incapacity: Where To Start
When planning for your potential incapacity, the first thing to ask yourself is, “If I’m ever incapacitated and unable to care for myself, who would I want to make decisions on my behalf?” Specifically, you’ll be selecting the person, or persons, you want to make your healthcare, financial, and legal decisions for you until you either recover or pass away.

The most important thing to remember is that you must choose someone. Like we’ve seen with Britney, if you don’t legally name someone to make these decisions during your incapacity, the court will choose someone for you. And this is where things can get extremely difficult for you and your loved ones.

Although laws differ by state, in the absence of any estate planning, if you become incapacitated, the court will typically appoint a conservator or guardian to make financial and legal decisions on your behalf. As with Britney, this person could be a family member you’d never want managing your affairs, a professional guardian who charges exorbitant fees, or even a crooked professional guardian who abuses and exploits you for their own financial gain

Furthermore, like most court proceedings, the process of naming a guardian can be quite lengthy, costly, and emotionally draining for your family. And this is assuming your family members agree about what’s in your best interest. If your family members disagree about the course of your medical treatment or managing your finances, this could lead to ugly court battles between your loved ones.

Such conflicts can tear your family apart and drain your estate’s finances. For an example of just how bad things can get, look at the case of Florida’s Terry Schiavo, who spent 15 years in a vegetative state after suffering a heart attack at age 26. Because Terry did not have a living will or health care directive indicating in writing how she would want medical decisions made for her in such an event, Schiavo’s young husband fought Terry’s parents in court for more than a decade for permission to remove her from life support before she was ultimately allowed to pass away. 

 

A Comprehensive Incapacity Plan
Fortunately, such turmoil can be easily avoided through proper estate planning. Determining which estate planning strategies you should use to grant and guide this decision-making authority depends entirely on your personal circumstances. There are several options available, but choosing what’s best for you is something you should ultimately decide after consulting with an experienced lawyer like us because there are many considerations beyond simply whether to “pull the plug”, including how to handle such matters in the event of a pregnancy, whether to keep providing hydration and nutrition (and, if so, what kind), and how to determine incapacity. These, and other factors, are not typically addressed in a standard advance health care directive. 

That said, we can tell you one estate planning tool that’s totally worthless when it comes to your incapacity—a will. A will only goes into effect upon your death, and then it merely governs how your assets should be distributed, so having a will does nothing to keep your family out of court and out of the conflict in the event of your incapacity.

When it comes to creating your incapacity plan, your best bet is to put in place an array of different planning tools, rather than a single document. To this end, your plan should include some, or all, of the following:

Durable financial power of attorney: This document grants an individual of your choice the immediate authority to make decisions related to the management of your financial, business, and legal affairs, and can state how your affairs should be handled.

 

Revocable living trust: A living trust can immediately transfer control of your assets held by the trust to a person of your choice to be used for your benefit in the event of your incapacity. The trust can include legally binding instructions for how your assets should be managed, and the document can even spell out specific conditions that must be met for you to be deemed incapacitated.
Medical power of attorney: An advance directive that grants an individual of your choice the immediate legal authority to make decisions about your medical treatment in the event of your incapacity.

Living will: An advance directive that provides specific guidance about how your medical decisions should be made during your incapacity, including who should be able to see you and specifics regarding how you want your care to be handled. In some instances, a medical power of attorney and a living will are combined in a single document.

Documents Aren’t Enough
In the end, there’s one thing to remember about all of these documents—they are just documents, and they don’t provide your loved ones with a trusted advisor who is often needed to deal with all potential outcomes, and to navigate the legal system on your behalf. If you really want to keep your family out of court and out of conflict, you cannot just rely on documents to do it. Instead, these documents should be created by a lawyer like us who will get to know you, your wishes, and be there for you throughout the many stages of life—and ultimately be there for your family when you can’t be.

Furthermore, in addition to the above estate planning documents, it’s equally—if not more—important for your loved ones to be aware of your plan and understand their role in it. As part of the planning process, a Personal Family Lawyer® will hold a family meeting with all of the individuals impacted by your plan, where we walk them through your plan, explaining the reasoning behind your decisions and what they need to do if something happens to you.

 

In the end, you’ll find that the best protection comes from combining your comprehensive incapacity plan with a team of people who will care for you, can watch out for you, and know exactly what to do in the event tragedy strikes. As your Personal Family Lawyer®, we can guide and support you to put in place both of these elements. In doing so, it would make it virtually impossible for a conservator or legal guardian to ever be appointed—or even need to be appointed—against your wishes, and instead, we will create a robust plan that would allow you to stipulate how your life, healthcare, and assets should be managed if you ever become unable to manage them yourself.

 

Timing Is Everything

Keep in mind that your incapacity plan must be created well before you become incapacitated. You must be able to clearly express your wishes and consent in order for these planning documents to be valid, and even slight levels of mental illness or dementia could get them thrown out of court.

Plus, as we mentioned earlier, an unforeseen accident or illness could strike at any time no matter your age, so don’t wait—contact us right away to get your incapacity plan started.

Finally, it’s vital that you regularly review and update your estate plan to keep pace with changes to your life, family dynamics, and the law. If any of the individuals you’ve named becomes unable or unwilling to serve for whatever reason, you’ll need to revise your plan accordingly, and we can help with that, too. 

 

Let Britney’s Story Be A Lesson

Although Britney’s story is certainly tragic and we can’t be sure how it will ultimately play out, her case has at least shined a spotlight on the potential for abuse that exists within the conservatorship and guardianship system. In fact, Britney’s case has already inspired lawmakers at both the state and federal level to take a closer look at adult guardianships and push for increased oversight and transparency for these legal arrangements.

As one Congresswoman from Massachusetts told Politico, “If this could happen to someone who is as famous as Britney Spears, I mean, think about what’s happening to regular Americans. We need to pull back the curtain on this.” said Rep. Lori Trahan. 

By the same token, Britney’s story should inspire you to make certain that you and your loved ones have the proper estate planning strategies in place to prevent the loss of autonomy, family conflict, and potential for abuse that comes with court-ordered conservatorships and guardianships.

To this end, if you’ve yet to plan for incapacity, schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session™ right away, we, your Personal Family Lawyer®, can advise you about the most suitable estate planning vehicles to put in place. And if you already have an incapacity plan prepared—even one created by another lawyer—we can review it to make sure it’s been properly set up, maintained, and updated. Contact us, your Personal Family Lawyer® today to plan for your life.

 

This article is a service of Stephanie D. Hon, Personal Family Lawyer®. We do not just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why we offer a Family Wealth Planning Session™, during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge. 

Britney Spears’ Nightmare Conservatorship Underscores The Vital Importance Of Incapacity Planning—Part 1 

Since the age of 16, when she burst onto the charts with her debut single, “…Hit Me Baby One More Time,” Britney Spears has been one of the world’s most famous and beloved pop stars. Yet despite her massive fame and fortune, Britney, who is now 39, has never truly had full control over her own life.

As most familiar with pop culture know by now, Britney has been living under a conservatorship for the past 13 years. Also known as “adult guardianship,” a conservatorship is a legal structure in which the court granted Britney’s father, Jaime Spears, and other individuals nearly complete control over her legal, financial, and personal decisions. The conservatorship was initially established in February 2008 after Britney suffered a mental breakdown, which resulted in her being briefly hospitalized.

A Total Loss of Control
Back in 2008, the court-appointed Britney’s father and attorney Andrew Wallet as her co-conservators, as Britney was deemed mentally unfit to care for herself. The arrangement was only meant to be temporary, but in October of that year, the conservatorship was made long-term, and her father has remained in nearly complete control of Britney’s life ever since.

Under the conservatorship, Britney’s father has the power to restrict her visitors; he is in charge of arranging and approving her visits with her own children; he has the authority to make her medical decisions; and he has the final say in all of her business deals, including when she works, and the complete authority over all of her financial matters.

As it stands now, Britney’s current mental-health status remains unclear, and we can’t be sure whether or not she still requires someone to help her manage her financial and business affairs. But what is abundantly clear is that given the chance, Britney would have undoubtedly preferred to have some say in not only who should be in charge of making decisions on her behalf during her incapacity, but also how those decisions should be made.

Yet because Britney did not create legal documents indicating who should make decisions for her if she could not make decisions for herself, a judge decided for her—and as you’ll read below, this has resulted in immense trauma for Britney and destroyed her relationship with her father. With this in mind, here in this series of articles, we will first discuss the latest details on Britney’s conservatorship and the impact the arrangement has had on the pop star’s life and career. From there, we’ll discuss how you can prevent something similar from happening to you and your loved ones using proactive estate planning and our Family Wealth Planning process. 

 

Years Of Abuse And Conflict
Although there has been widespread speculation that Britney’s conservatorship was abusive, the exact details of her conservatorship have been kept private. Moreover, until very recently, Britney had never spoken publicly about her life under the arrangement. 

Britney’s father and others involved with the conservatorship have consistently maintained the arrangement saved Britney from herself and others looking to exploit her when she was at her lowest point. They described how the conservatorship helped pull Britney out of debt and allowed her to earn a fortune estimated to be worth nearly $60 million. Plus, representatives for the conservatorship have noted that Britney could move to end the conservatorship whenever she wanted.

However, two shocking developments within the past few weeks finally revealed just how much Britney has suffered under the conservatorship and how she has fought unsuccessfully for years to regain control of her life from her father. The first was a report published by the New York Times on June 22

According to confidential court records obtained by the newspaper, Britney had expressed serious opposition to her conservatorship as early as 2014, and on multiple occasions, the pop icon pushed for her father to be removed from his position. The very next day in a public court hearing on June 23, Britney finally broke her silence, and what she described was stunning.

During an emotional 24-minute speech delivered via Zoom, Britney pleaded with Judge Brenda Penny to end the conservatorship under which she claimed she has endured years of abuse and exploitation, including having to take a powerful mood stabilizer that makes her feel drunk, being compelled to work while seriously ill, and being forced to remain on birth control, so she can’t have more children. (Read a full transcript of Britney’s testimony)

In response, Britney’s father vehemently denies any wrongdoing and insists he’s acting in his daughter’s best interests. In fact, a few days later, his lawyers filed a petition requesting the court investigate Britney’s allegations of abuse. According to the petition, if Britney’s claims prove true, then “corrective action must be taken,” and if not, then the conservatorship “can continue its course.” 

A week later, Judge Penny denied Britney’s request to remove her father as conservator. However, the judge’s ruling was only in response to a filing by Britney’s lawyer made in November 2020 to have a wealth management company, Bessemer Trust, take over as sole conservator, and was not in response to Britney’s impassioned testimony. As it turns out, Britney’s court-appointed lawyer, Samuel Ingham, has yet to file a formal petition to terminate the conservatorship, but the judge said she would be open to such a filing.

According to CNN, Britney has since instructed Ingraham to immediately file the necessary paperwork in order to formally terminate the conservatorship once and for all. If filed, the judge could rule on Britney’s petition and her father’s request for an investigation in the next court hearing on the conservatorship, which is scheduled for next week on July 14.

 

A Broken System
Britney’s story highlights the real potential for abuse that exists within the conservatorship and guardianship system. In fact, as we’ve covered in previous articles, there have been dozens of highly publicized reports in recent years involving corrupt professional guardians, who exploit those under their care for their own financial gain. Yet, in those cases, the victims have nearly all been elderly, and their abusers were strangers. But Britney’s situation makes it clear that people of any age can fall prey to these restrictive legal arrangements, and the abusers can even be your own family members.

Furthermore, and perhaps the most puzzling part of the whole situation, is why someone as young and active as Britney is still living under a conservatorship. Conservatorships and guardianships are typically used to protect the elderly and mentally disabled who are incapable of making their own decisions and caring for themselves, and they often remain in effect until the person dies.

Although Britney may have initially needed the conservatorship to protect her from her own poor decisions and others looking to take advantage of her in the aftermath of her breakdown in 2008, since then, the Grammy winner has worked almost nonstop and earned millions of dollars. In fact, over the past decade during which she was deemed “incapable of making her own decisions,” Britney has released four albums, headlined multiple world tours, performed nearly 250 shows in a Las Vegas residency, and served as a judge on the TV show “The X Factor.”
 

That said, due to the private nature of her conservatorship and the fact that Britney has never fully disclosed the specifics of her diagnosis, we don’t know the full circumstances of her mental health. Although there have been rumors and speculation that Britney is suffering from bipolar disorder, this has never been substantiated, and her medical records are sealed.

What’s more, although it was reported in 2019 that Britney checked herself into a mental health facility and was prescribed lithium, an older medication that’s used to treat bipolar disorder, according to court records obtained by the New York Times, this wasn’t entirely true. In 2019, Britney testified that she was forced into the facility against her will, and during her most recent testimony, she told the judge that she was forced to take the lithium against her wishes as well.

In the end, if Britney does petition to terminate her conservatorship, she will need to prove to the court that she currently possesses the capacity to handle her own life, health, and financial choices. In order to do this, however, Britney will almost certainly have to undergo another mental health evaluation, which would likely involve a court hearing and testimony from mental health professionals.

In an interview with the culture and music website Vulture, Tamar Arminak, a conservatorship attorney who worked on a similar conservatorship involving 27-year-old actress Amanda Bynes, said that the process to prove Britney’s capacity would likely involve a “mini-trial” to determine whether the conservatorship continues to be in the singer’s best interest.

“You have to present evidence and show a changed circumstance,” said Arminak. “You will have to have testimony from doctors, psychiatrists, therapists, and witnesses who will testify for you that you shouldn’t be under this conservatorship.”

Unfortunately, undergoing yet another mental health evaluation is something Britney is hesitant to do. Indeed, in her recent testimony, she made this point clear. “I truly believe this conservatorship is abusive… I want to end the conservatorship without being evaluated,” Britney told the judge.

According to Vanity Fair, a source close to Britney said the reason for Britney’s reluctance to undergo another mental health examination is due to the fact that she has had such poor experiences over the years with the doctors hired by her father. 

“She doesn’t have much trust for the doctors that she has worked with so far,” the source said. “She feels like they have failed her.”

 

The source went on to say that Britney’s reluctance to be evaluated is also one of the reasons her lawyer has yet to formally file the petition to end the conservatorship. After her past experiences with mental health professionals, it’s understandable that Britney would be hesitant to trust yet another doctor hired by her father or appointed by the court.

However, if Britney wants to finally be free and have full control over her life, that might be the only choice she has.

 

Avoid Britney’s Fate With Incapacity Planning

Whether it’s mental illness, age-related dementia, or a serious accident, we are all powerless to prevent the potential for incapacity. However, with the proper estate planning, you can at least have control over how your life, healthcare, and assets will be managed if something does happen. Moreover, such planning can also prevent your family from enduring the bitter conflict and expense that can result when you leave control over your life in the hands of the court like Britney did.

Working with us, your Personal Family Lawyer®, we can put an array of estate planning vehicles in place that would make it practically impossible for a conservator or legal guardian to ever be appointed—or even need to be appointed—against your wishes. In part two, we’ll outline those options in more detail, but to learn more, contact us today.

 

We’ll continue with part two in this series on Britney Spears’ conservatorship and how you can avoid the potential for abuse, conflict, and expense of court-ordered conservatorship using estate planning.

This article is a service of Stephanie D. Hon, Personal Family Lawyer®. We do not just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why we offer a Family Wealth Planning Session™, during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge. 

Legal Gangsters: Netflix’s I Care a Lot Uncovers the Dark Side of Legal Guardianship – Part 2

The Netflix movie I Care a Lot provides a dark, violent, and somewhat comedic take on the real-life and not-at-all funny dangers of the legal (and sometimes corrupt) guardianship system. While the film’s twisting plot may seem far-fetched, it sheds light on a tragic phenomenon—the abuse of seniors at the hands of crooked “professional” guardians.

Last week in part one of this series, we offered a brief synopsis of the movie, which revolves around Marla Grayson, a crooked professional guardian who makes her living by preying on vulnerable seniors, and we then outlined the true events that inspired the fictional account. The film’s writer and director, J. Blakeson, came up with the idea after reading news stories of a similar scam involving a corrupt professional guardianship agency in Las Vegas.

In that case, a real-life Marla Grayson named April Parks, who owned a company called A Private Professional Guardian, was sentenced to up to 40 years in prison in 2018 after being indicted on more than 200 felonies for using her guardianship status to swindle more than 150 seniors out of their life savings. While I Care a Lot is fictional, the Parks case also inspired the 2018 documentary, The Guardians, directed by award-winning filmmaker Billie Mintz, and his film details the terrifying true events that ravaged the Nevada guardianship industry.

In a Facebook post, Mintz praises I Care a Lot as “a perfect introduction to guardianship,” but worries that because of the movie’s heavy focus on violence and Russian mobsters, “people won’t believe it’s real.” However, as Mintz points out, “I assure you that everything you see about guardianship is true.”

Indeed, while the Parks case is the most famous, similar cases of senior abuse by professional guardians are on the rise across the country. A 2010 report by the Government Accountability Office found hundreds of cases where guardians were involved in the abuse, exploitation, and neglect of seniors placed under their supervision. And given the country’s exploding elderly population and our overloaded court system, such abuse will almost certainly become more common.

Additionally, although most of the cases that have made the news have involved the elderly, the fact is, any adult could face court-ordered guardianship if they become incapacitated by illness or injury and haven’t put the proper legal protections in place.

To this end, here in part two, we’re going to explain how you can protect yourself and your loved ones from such abuse using proactive estate planning. 

 

How It Happens

Should you become incapacitated without any planning in place (due to illness or injury), your family (or a friend) would have to petition the court in order to be granted guardianship. In most cases, the court would appoint a family member as guardian, but this isn’t always the case. If you have no living family members, or those you do have are unwilling or unable to serve or deemed unsuitable by the court, a professional guardian would be appointed. 

Beyond the potential for abuse by professional guardians, if you become incapacitated and your family is forced into court seeking guardianship, they are likely to endure a costly, drawn-out, and emotionally taxing process. Not only can the legal fees and court costs drain your estate, but if your loved ones disagree over who is best suited to serve as your guardian, it could cause a bitter conflict that could tear your family apart and make it less likely that you get the kind of care you want.

In another scenario, should your loved ones disagree about who should be your guardian, the court could decide that naming a relative as your guardian would be too disruptive to your family dynamics and appoint a professional guardian instead. However, if you have the proper planning vehicles in place, it is highly unlikely for a guardian to be appointed against your wishes.

 

A Comprehensive Plan For Incapacity
Should you become incapacitated, a comprehensive incapacity plan would give the individual, or individuals, of your choice the immediate authority to make your medical, financial, and legal decisions, without the need for court intervention. Moreover, such planning allows you to provide clear guidance about your wishes, so there is no mistake about how these decisions should be made.

There are several planning vehicles that can go into a comprehensive plan for incapacity, but a will is not among them. A will only goes into effect upon your death, and then, it merely governs how your assets should be divided, so it would do nothing to protect you in the event of incapacity.

When it comes to creating your incapacity plan, your best bet is to put in place a number of different planning tools rather than a single document. To this end, your plan should include some or all of the following:

 

  • Durable financial power of attorney: This document grants an individual of your choice the immediate authority to make decisions related to the management of your financial and legal affairs.
  • Revocable living trust: A living trust immediately transfers control of all assets held by the trust to a person of your choice to be used for your benefit in the event of your incapacity. The trust can include legally binding instructions for how your care should be managed, and the document can even spell out specific conditions that must be met for you to be deemed incapacitated.
  • Medical power of attorney: A medical power of attorney grants an individual of your choice the immediate legal authority to make decisions about your medical treatment in the event of your incapacity.
  • Living will: A living will ((sometimes called an advance directive) provides specific guidance about how your medical decisions should be made during your incapacity, particularly at the end of life. In some instances, a medical power of attorney and a living will are combined in a single document.

But here is the thing about all of these documents—they are just documents and not guidance for the people you love. If you really want to keep your family and friends out of court and out of conflict, you cannot just rely on documents to do it. Rather, these documents should be created by a lawyer who will get to know you, your wishes, and be there for you throughout the many stages of life, plus be there for your family and friends if and when you can’t be.

 

Communication is Key

In addition to the above planning tools, it is equally—if not more—important for your loved ones to be aware of your plan and understand their role in it. As part of our planning process, we hold a family meeting with all of the individuals impacted by your plan where we walk them through your plan and explain the reasoning behind your decisions and what they need to do if something happens to you.

By combining your comprehensive incapacity plan with a team of people who care for you, can watch out for you, and know exactly what to do in the event tragedy strikes, we can make it virtually impossible for you to be abused by a professional guardian.

Don’t Put It Off
Although incapacity from dementia is most common in the elderly, debilitating injury and illness can strike at any point in life. Given this, all adults 18 and older should have an incapacity plan. Furthermore, planning for incapacity must take place well before any cognitive decline appears since you must be able to clearly express your wishes and consent for the documents to be valid.

In light of this, you should get your own planning handled first, and then discuss the need for planning with your aging parents as soon as possible, and from there, schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session with us to get a plan started. And if you or your senior loved ones already have an incapacity plan, we can review it to make sure it has been properly set up, maintained, and updated. Unfortunately, a plan put in place years ago is unlikely to work now, so updating is critical, and unfortunately often not overlooked.

Indeed, once you have a plan in place, make sure to regularly review and update it to keep pace with life changes, changes in your assets, or changes in your family structure. And if any of the individuals you have named become unable or unwilling to serve for whatever reason, you will need to revise your plan—and we can help with that too.

 

Retain Control of Your Life and Assets

To avoid the loss of autonomy, family conflict, and potential for abuse that comes with court-ordered guardianship, we invite you to meet with us as your Personal Family Lawyer®. While there is no way to prevent dementia and other forms of cognitive decline or an unexpected illness or injury, we can put planning tools in place to ensure that you at least have some control over how your life and assets will be managed if it ever does occur. Contact us today to schedule your appointment.

 

This article is a service of Stephanie Hon, Personal Family Lawyer®. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why we offer a Family Wealth Planning Session™, during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge. 

Legal Gangsters: Netflix’s I Care a Lot Uncovers the Dark Side of Legal Guardianship – Part 1

The Netflix movie I Care a Lot provides a dark, violent, and somewhat comedic take on the real-life and not-at-all funny dangers of the legal (and sometimes corrupt) guardianship system. While the film’s twisting plot may seem far-fetched, it sheds light on a tragic phenomenon—the abuse of seniors at the hands of crooked “professional” guardians.

In this two-part series, we’ll discuss how the movie depicts such abuse, how this can occur in real life, and what you can do to prevent something similar from happening to you or your loved ones using proactive estate planning and our Family Wealth Planning process. For support in putting airtight, protective planning vehicles in place, meet with us as your Personal Family Lawyer®.

Note: This article contains spoilers for the movie I Care a Lot.

At the beginning of the movie, we meet Marla Grayson, a crooked professional guardian who makes her living by preying on vulnerable seniors. A professional guardian is a person appointed by the court to make legal and financial decisions for senior “wards” of the court, who are deemed unable to make such decisions for themselves.

Working with a corrupt doctor, Marla targets wealthy victims and gets a judge to order these individuals unfit to care for themselves and then appoint her as their guardian. From there, she and her business partner/ girlfriend, Fran, move the seniors into a nursing home, seize their homes, and sell all of their assets for their own financial gain.

Marla’s scheme takes a turn for the worse when her latest senior victim, Jennifer Peterson, turns out to be the mother of a Russian mob boss named Roman Lunyov. After Marla has Jennifer placed in a long-term care facility, Roman tries unsuccessfully to get his mother out of the facility, first by bribing Marla, then through the court, and finally by trying to break her out. 

While this may seem ludicrous, this kind of abuse actually happens outside of the movies to seniors with significant assets, even those with caring adult children like Roman. 

At this point, the movie descends into a violent back-and-forth between Roman and Marla, as they each try and fail to kill one another until they both decide that rather than murdering each other, they could make more money by going into business together. 

Fast forward to several years later, we learn that Marla and Roman have become millionaires after starting a global chain of senior care services, called Grayson Guardianships, which employs thousands of crooked guardians overseeing hundreds of thousands of “clients” all over the world.

 

Based On True Events

With its over-the-top violence, kidnappings, and Russian mobsters, some might dismiss I Care a Lot as nothing but Hollywood hype and find it hard to believe that an operation as sinister as Marla’s could ever actually exist. But the fact is, the movie’s writer and director, J. Blakeson, came up with the idea after reading news stories about very similar (less the mob and murder) situations. And knowing such things actually happen makes the movie even more terrifying.

“The idea first came when I heard news stories about these predatory legal guardians who were exploiting this legal loophole and exploiting the vulnerability in the system to take advantage of older people, basically stripping them of their lives and assets to fill their own pockets,” Blakeson told Esquire Magazine. “They run through their money as fast as possible, store them in the worst care home, and just forget about them. Just park them and then move on to the next one, and that felt almost like a gangster’s operation.”

And while the real-life scams never reached a level on par with Grayson’s Guardians, one crooked professional guardianship business in Las Vegas did manage to bilk hundreds of unsuspecting seniors out of their life savings. As we detailed in our previous article, Use Estate Planning to Avoid Adult Guardianship—and Elder Abuse, a real-life Marla Grayson named April Parks, who owned a Las Vegas-based company called A Private Professional Guardian, was sentenced to up to 40 years in prison in 2018 after being indicted on more than 200 felonies for using her guardianship status to swindle more than 150 seniors. 

In her case, prosecutors described how Parks, in a similar fashion as Marla, used a shady network of social workers and medical professionals who helped her track down her elderly victims. On the lookout for wealthy seniors with a history of health issues and few living relatives, Parks was often able to obtain court-sanctioned guardianship during court hearings that lasted less than two minutes.

From there, the guardians would force the elderly out of their homes and into assisted-living facilities and nursing homes. They would then sell off their homes and other assets, keeping the proceeds for themselves. Even worse, the guardians were often able to prevent the seniors from seeing or speaking with their family members, leaving them isolated and even more vulnerable to exploitation.

 

The Most Punitive Civil Penalty

What makes these cases particularly tragic is the fact that for the most part, everything these unscrupulous guardians did is perfectly legal. As Blakeson put it, “They had the law on their side, and there was nothing you could do.” Although guardianships are designed to protect the elderly from their own poor decisions, guardianship can turn out to be more of a punishment than a benefit. 

In a 2018 New York Times article detailing the state of the guardianship system in New York, Florida congressman Claude Pepper described guardianship as “the most punitive civil penalty that can be levied against an American citizen, with the exception, of course, of the death penalty.” 

Indeed, once you’ve been placed under court-ordered guardianship, you essentially lose all of your civil rights. Whether it’s a family member or a professional, the person named as your guardian has the complete legal authority to control every facet of your life. While guardianship is governed by state law and varies from state to state, some of the most common powers guardians are granted include the following:

  • Determining where you live, including moving you into a nursing home
  • Complete control over your finances, real estate, and other assets
  • Making all of your healthcare decisions and providing consent for medical treatments
  • Placing restrictions on your communications and interactions with others, including family members
  • Making decisions about your daily life such as recreational activities, clothing, and food choices
  • Making end-of-life and other palliative-care decisions 

Additionally, though it’s possible for guardianship to be terminated by the court if it can be proven that the need for guardianship no longer exists, a study by the American Bar Association (ABA) found that such attempts typically failAnd those family members who do try to fight against court-appointed guardians frequently end up paying hefty sums of money in attorney’s fees and court costs, with some even going bankrupt in the process.


Protection Through Planning

Given the potential for neglect, abuse, and exploitation that guardianship affords, it’s crucial that seniors and their families take the proper steps to prevent any and all possibility of falling prey to such scams. Moreover, because any adult could face court-ordered guardianship if they become incapacitated by illness or injury, it’s vital that every person over age 18—not just seniors—take proactive measures to prepare for potential incapacity.

Fortunately, there are multiple estate planning tools that can prevent such abuse from occurring. With us, as your Personal Family Lawyer®, we can put planning vehicles in place and offer ongoing advisory and support that would make it practically impossible for a legal guardian to ever be appointed—or need to be appointed—against your wishes.

Next week, we’ll continue with part two in this series on the dark side of adult guardianship and offer tips for how you can avoid the potential for abuse using estate planning.

 

This article is a service of Stephanie Hon, Personal Family Lawyer®. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why we offer a Family Wealth Planning Session™, during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge. 

Consider This Before You Create A Will Online

A last will and testament is the most commonly thought-of document when it comes to an estate plan. But really it is only a very small part of an integrated plan that ensures your family stays out of court and out of conflict if and when something happens to you.

Do not think you can just write your own will and that will help your family.

You have probably seen ads from services that tout the idea that you can write your own will quickly – maybe even while you are in the security line at the airport (seriously, we have seen those ads in our own Facebook feeds).

Instead, consider the reality that trying to do so could actually create far more trouble for your loved ones down the road if you try to write your own will. Your family and loved ones need you to get professional support from someone who can help you look at what you own, who you love, and what would happen to you and everyone you love if and when something happens to you.

Death is unavoidable – and incapacity may happen before that. These are non-negotiables.

Facing these matters head-on leads you – and your loved ones – to having the best life possible. Otherwise, it is the people you love who get stuck with everything you were not willing to take care of now.

Unfortunately, if you go it alone, you may miss important facets of what happens in the event of your incapacity or death. For example, you may think that a will is sufficient when what you really need is a probate avoidance trust to keep your family out of court. A five-minute will won’t help you stay out of court.

Or you may think your kids are adequately protected because you have a will, but you may really need a full Kids Protection Plan® and without it, your kids could end up in the care of strangers, even if just temporarily. Before you do anything, get educated and empowered to do what is right.

The right plan for you begins with knowing what you have and then being clear on what is necessary to keep your family out of court and conflict and keep your assets out of your state’s unclaimed property fund. If you are ready to write your will, that is great – come see us first.

The biggest mistake you can make is not facing the reality of death, the second biggest mistake is facing it alone.

If you need help getting started, consult with us your Personal Family Lawyer®. We will help you through the process so you can make sure your loved ones are protected and your wishes are honored.

 
This article is a service of Stephanie Hon, Personal Family Lawyer®. We don’t just draft documents – we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love.  This is why we offer a Family Wealth Planning Session™ during which you will get more financially organized than you have ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session™ and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

7 Ways To Save Big Money On Your 2020 Taxes—Part 2

2020 was a nightmarish year for many families. But thanks to recent legislation, you could see a silver lining in the form of major tax breaks when filing your income taxes this spring. First up, although it’s technically not a tax break, the IRS recently announced that the deadline for filing your 2020 federal income taxes has been pushed back from April 15 to May 17, 2021, which gives you an extra month to get your tax return handled. 

The postponement applies to individual taxpayers, including those who pay self-employment taxes. But the extension does not apply to the first-quarter 2021 estimated tax payments that many small business owners file. So if you file quarterly taxes, contact your tax advisor now, if you haven’t already done so.

Additionally, the CARES Act passed in March 2020 provides individual taxpayers with several hefty tax-saving opportunities, many of which are only available this year. What’s more, President Biden’s new relief package, known as the American Rescue Plan (ARP), which went into effect in March 2021, not only offers additional stimulus payments to most Americans but also includes significant tax relief for those taxpayers who lost their job and had to rely on unemployment benefits in 2020.

While there are dozens of potential tax breaks available for 2020, last week in part one of this series, we highlighted the first three of seven ways you can save big money on your 2020 tax return. Here in part two, we’ll discuss the remaining four ways you can save.

4. New Rules for Early Withdrawals From Retirement Accounts

If your finances were seriously impacted by last year’s economic turmoil, you may have needed to withdraw funds from your retirement accounts to cover your expenses. And thanks to new rules under the CARES Act, you have more flexibility to make an emergency withdrawal from tax-deferred retirement accounts in 2020, without incurring the normal penalties.

Typically, permanent withdrawals from traditional IRAs or 401(k) accounts are taxed at ordinary income rates in the year the funds were taken out. And pulling out money before age 59 1/2 would also typically cost you a 10% penalty.

But thanks to the CARES Act, you can avoid the 10% penalty (if under 59 1/2) on up to $100,000 in pandemic-related distributions from your retirement account in 2020. You are also allowed to spread such distributions over three years to reduce the tax impact. Or better yet, you can opt to put this money back into your retirement account—also within three years—and avoid paying taxes on the money altogether.

However, because early withdrawals can negatively impact your retirement savings down the road, if you are looking to take advantage of this provision, you should consult with us, as your Personal Family Lawyer®, and your financial advisor first. Also, note that employers are not required to participate in this provision of the CARES Act, so you’ll also need to check with your plan administrator to see if it’s available at your workplace.

5. Medical Deductions 

If you had hefty medical bills in 2020, you might be able to get some tax relief using increased deductions. Under the CARES Act, you can deduct any medical expenses above 7.5% of your adjusted gross income (AGI). Your AGI is your total income minus any other deductions you’ve already taken. 

For example, if your AGI was $100,000, you can deduct qualified unreimbursed medical expenses that exceeded $7,500 in 2020. However, you have to itemize your deductions in order to write off these expenses, so meet with us to determine if this would make sense for your situation.

6. Earned Income Tax Credit

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EIC) is a refundable tax credit for low- and middle-income taxpayers that’s often overlooked. The amount of credit you can claim depends on your annual income and the number of kids you have—but people without kids can qualify, too. 

Below are the maximum EIC amounts for 2020, along with the maximum income you can earn before losing the credit altogether. Note: You can’t claim the EIC if you are a married individual filing separately.

 

Number of childrenMaximum earned income tax creditMax earnings,

single or head of household filers

Max earnings,

joint filers

0$538$15,820$21,710
1$3,584$41,756$47,646
2$5,920$47,440$53,330
3 or more$6,660$50,954$56,844

Additionally, for the 2020 tax year, there are special rules for the EIC due to the pandemic: You can use either your 2019 income or your 2020 income to calculate your EIC and use whichever number gets you the bigger credit. This doesn’t happen automatically, though, so be sure to ask your tax professional to run the numbers both ways and choose the option that offers the most savings.

7. Child Tax Credit

If you have minor children aged 16 or younger, the Child Tax Credit is one of the most effective ways to reduce your federal income tax bill—and there are special rules for 2020 that can save you even more. 

For your 2020 taxes, you can claim up to $2,000 per qualified child as a tax credit, and under rules due to the pandemic, you can use either your 2019 income or your 2020 income to calculate your credit—whichever year offers the most savings. The credit begins to phase out when your AGI reaches $75,000 for single filers, $150,000 for joint filers, and $112,500 for the head of household filers.

What’s more, with the passage of Biden’s new ARP this March, the child tax credit is set to get even bigger in 2021. When you file your taxes next year, the per-child credit will go up to $3,000 or $3,600, depending on your child’s age. Look for a future blog post detailing all of the new tax-saving opportunities available under the ARP for 2021 and beyond.

Maximize Your Tax Savings for 2020

These are just a few of the numerous tax breaks available for 2020. Indeed, there are plenty of other deductions and credits that might be up for grabs depending on your situation. Meet with us, as your Personal Family Lawyer®, to make sure you don’t miss out on a single one. Contact us today to schedule your visit.

This article is a service of Stephanie D. Hon, Personal Family Lawyer®. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why we offer a Family Wealth Planning Session™, during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge. 

Things to Remember While Updating Your Estate Plan After You Move

Although you likely won’t need to have an entirely new estate plan prepared for you, upon relocating to another state, you should definitely have your existing plan reviewed by an estate planning lawyer who is familiar with your new home state’s laws. Each state has its own laws governing estate planning, and those laws can differ significantly from one location to another.

Given this, you’ll want to make sure your planning documents all comply with the new state’s laws, and the terms of those documents still work as intended. Here, we’ll discuss how differing state laws can affect common planning documents and the steps you might want to take to ensure your documents are properly updated.

 

Last Will and Testament

The good news is, most states will accept a will that was executed properly under another state’s laws. However, there could be differences in the new state’s laws that make certain provisions in your will invalid. Here are a few of the things you should pay the most attention to in your will when moving:

Your Executor: Consider whether or not the executor or administrator you’ve chosen will be able to serve in that role in your new location. Every state will allow an out-of-state executor to serve, but some states have special requirements that those executors must meet, such as requiring them to post a bond before serving. Other states require non-resident executors to appoint an agent who lives within the state to accept legal documents on behalf of the estate.

Marital Property: If you are married, give special consideration to how your new state treats marital property. While a common-law state might treat the property you own in your name alone as yours, community-property states treat all of your property as owned jointly with your spouse. If your new state treats marital property differently, you might need to draft a new will to ensure your wishes are honored.

Interested Witnesses: Another important role under your will to consider when moving to a new state is an interested witness. An interested witness is someone who was a witness to your will who also receives a gift from your will. Some states allow interested witnesses to receive the gift, while other states do not allow such gifts. And still, other states allow such gifts provided the witness is a family member.

Revocable Living Trust

A valid revocable living trust from one state should continue to be valid in your new state. However, you need to make certain that you transfer any new assets or property you acquire, such as your new home, to your trust, so that those assets can avoid the need to go through probate before being distributed to your heirs upon your death.

Power of Attorney

A valid power of attorney documents, such as a durable power of attorney, medical power of attorney, or financial power of attorney, created in one state may be valid in your new state. However, you shouldn’t just assume it will be accepted, and you should check with a lawyer like us to make certain your document will work 100% as intended.

What’s more, in some cases, banks, financial institutions, and healthcare facilities in your new state may not accept a power of attorney document if it’s unfamiliar to them, which is another reason to have these documents reviewed by a professional. Finally, simply as a practical matter, it may be a good idea to have your power of attorney agent live in the same state you do, so keep that in mind as well.

Advance Directive/ Living Will

When it comes to advance directives, such as a living will and medical power of attorney, you’ll find that most states will accept documents that were created in other states, but this isn’t guaranteed. Some states, for example, don’t even have any laws governing these matters, so healthcare professionals may be hesitant to accept out-of-state documents.

Furthermore, the provisions, forms, and language used in advance directives can vary widely between states. For example, some states combine a medical power of attorney with a living will so that you get to name the person in charge of making your medical decisions in the event of your incapacity and spell out your specific wishes for care all in one document. Yet, in other states the documents are separate. For these reasons, you should enlist the help of a lawyer to make sure your advance directives will be honored in your new locale.

While you are reviewing your directives for your new state, you should also review them to ensure they are clear on your wishes regarding how you should be given nutrition and hydration if hospitalized. Many directives aren’t specific enough in this area, and this is exactly what led to the lengthy battle over Terry Schiavo’s life. In addition, check to see if you want to add or change any provisions to account for the current realities of COVID-19.

Beneficiary Designations

If you have accounts with beneficiary designations, such as 401(k)s, life insurance policies, and payable-on-death bank accounts, these should be valid no matter which state you live in. That said, you should still review these documents when you move to ensure that your address and other personal information are updated.

Keep Your Plan Current

As with other major life events, such as births, deaths, and divorce, moving to a new state is the ideal time to have your plan reviewed by a professional. With us, as your Personal Family Lawyer®, we’ll not only support you in creating the planning documents that are best suited for your situation and asset profile, but we also have systems and processes in place to ensure your documents stay totally updated throughout your lifetime.

Additionally, for parents of minor children, we can also help you create the legal documents for naming both short and long-term guardians, who would care for your kids in the event of your death or incapacity. This is so important; we’ve developed a comprehensive system called the Kids Protection Plan® that guides you step-by-step through the process of creating the legal documents naming these guardians.

 

You can get the process of naming guardians started right now for free by visiting our user-friendly website.

Schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session with us to learn more about our services or to get your estate plan started or reviewed today.

Why Estate Planning is a Women’s Issue

A group of wealth strategists at CIBC Private Wealth Management noticed that the women in attendance at educational seminars for client couples were often mum. So, as part of the firm’s Women’s CIRCLE initiative, they started women-only seminars, including one called Finding Your Way. The idea is that if you take an inventory of your financial life, and know a little bit about how the estate administration process works, you’ll be more confident and better prepared to deal with a death in the family.

The surprise: It wasn’t just older women in their 60s and 70s who have been signing up, but Millennial women, wanting to know what they should be doing to manage their own wealth and make sure their parents (especially moms who will generally outlive dads) are in good shape in the event of a death or divorce.

“These concepts are really daunting and quite scary,” says Becky Milliman, a managing director with CIBC Private Wealth Management in Chicago, noting that it takes courage for the less financially sophisticated family member to speak up, and that tends to be the woman.

Here are some top lessons.

Keep a list of trusted advisors. Many of the adult children couldn’t name their parents’ attorney or accountant. You shouldn’t just know their names, you should meet them or at least make a quick introductory phone call. Ditto for financial advisors, bankers, and/or insurance brokers. Keep an updated list with your will. More wealth management firms are rolling out “emergency contact forms” as a backstop for elder abuse. Fill them out.

Use a thumb drive. There were real concerns over digital assets, says Amanda Marsted, a managing director of CIBC Private Wealth Management in New York. Would you know the login information to access your spouse or parents’ accounts? Consider using a password manager, or store password information (and documents) on a thumb drive.

Have the conversation. What if mom or dad (or your spouse) says: “When you need to know, you’ll get the information.” Tell them: You don’t have to share balances, but at a minimum, you should share advisors, bank account numbers, and such. That will prevent much bigger problems down the line.

Keep important documents secure. Are your original wills and trusts at the lawyer’s office? Your real estate deed in your bank safe deposit box? Your insurance policies in one filing cabinet and income tax returns in another? The list goes on: retirement plan statements, birth/marriage certificates, Social Security cards. Make a list of these documents, including where you keep them. “You need to be prepared,” Milliman says.

Plan ahead if you have a family business. If you have a family business, do you have a succession plan in place? In one case, a widow was left with a business her late husband founded that she had no interest in carrying on. Luckily, it turned out to be an opportunistic time to sell, and Milliman helped the widow create a family foundation to minimize taxes from the sale and help her make a difference.

 Source: https://www.forbes.com/sites/ashleaebeling/2018/07/10/why-estate-planning-is-a-womens-issue/#35fdba54536e

5 Steps For Adding Digital Assets To Your Estate Plan

Although digital technology has made many aspects of our lives much easier and more convenient, it has also created some unique challenges when it comes to estate planning.

If you haven’t planned properly, for example, just locating and accessing all of your digital assets can be a major headache—or even impossible—for your loved ones following your death or incapacity.And even if your loved ones can access your digital assets, in some cases, doing so may violate privacy laws and/or the terms of service governing your accounts. You may also have some online assets that you don’t want your loved ones to inherit, so you’ll need to take measures to restrict and/or limit access to such assets.

​Given the unique nature of your online property, there are a number of special considerations you should be aware of when including online property in your plan. Here are a few of the steps you should take to help ensure your digital assets are properly accounted for, managed, and passed on.

1. Make an inventory:

Create a list of all your digital assets, along with their login and password information. Some of the most common digital assets include cryptocurrency, online financial accounts, online payment accounts like PayPal, websites, blogs, digital photos, email, and social media.

Store the list in a secure location, and provide your fiduciary (executor, trustee, or power of attorney agent) with detailed instructions about how to locate and access your accounts. To make them easier to manage, back up any cloud-based assets to a computer, flash drive, or other physical storage device. Review this list regularly to account for any new digital property you acquire.

2. Include digital assets in your estate plan:

Just like any other property you want to pass on, detail in your plan who you want to inherit each digital asset, along with your wishes for how the asset should be used or managed. If you have any assets you don’t want passed on, include instructions for how these accounts should be closed and/or deleted.

Do NOT include passwords or security keys in your planning documents, where they can be read by others. This is especially true for your will, which becomes public record upon your death. Instead, keep this information in a separate, secure location, and provide your fiduciary with instructions about how to access it. Consider using digital account-management services, such as Directive Communication Systems, to help streamline this process.

If you have particularly complex or highly encrypted digital assets like cryptocurrency, consider including provisions in your plan allowing your fiduciary to hire an IT consultant to deal with any technical challenges that might come up.

3. Restrict access:

Include terms in your plan detailing the level of access you want your fiduciary to have to your digital accounts. For example, do you want your fiduciary to be allowed to view your emails, photos, and social media posts before passing them on or deleting them? If there are any assets you want to limit access to, we can help you include the necessary provisions in your plan to ensure your privacy is respected.

4. Include relevant hardware: 

Don’t forget to include the physical devices—smartphones, computers, tablets—upon which your digital assets are stored in your plan. Having quick access to these devices will make it much easier for your fiduciary to manage your digital assets. And since the data can be transferred or deleted, you can even leave these devices to someone other than the individual who inherits the digital property stored on them.

5. Review service providers’ access-authorization functions:

Some service providers like Google, Facebook, and Instagram allow you to give specific individuals access to your accounts upon your death. Review the terms of service for your accounts, and if these functions are available, use them to document who you want to access your accounts.

Double check that the people you named to inherit your digital assets using these access-authorization tools match those you’ve named in your estate plan. If not, the provider will likely give priority to the person named with its tool, not your plan.

Keep pace with technology

As technology evolves, you’ll need to adapt your estate plan to keep pace with the ever-changing nature of your assets. As your Personal Family Lawyer®, we know just how valuable your online property can be, and our planning strategies are specifically designed to ensure these assets are preserved and passed on seamlessly in the event of your death or incapacity. Contact us today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session.

Remarrying In Midlife? Avoid Accidently Disinheriting Your Loved Ones

​Today, we’re seeing more and more people getting divorced in middle age and beyond. Indeed, the trend of couples getting divorced after age 50 has grown so common, it’s even garnered its own nickname: “gray divorce.”

Today, roughly one in four divorces involve those over 50, and divorce rates for this demographic have doubled in the past 30 years, according to the study Gray Divorce Revolution. For those over age 65, divorce rates have tripled.

With divorce coming so late in life, the financial fallout can be quite devastating. Indeed, Bloomberg.com found that the standard of living for women who divorce after age 50 drops by some 45%, while it falls roughly 21% for men. Given the significant decrease in income and the fact people are living longer than ever, it’s no surprise that many of these folks also choose to get remarried.

And those who do get remarried frequently bring one or more children from previous marriages into the new union, which gives rise to an increasing number of blended families. Regardless of age or marital status, all adults over age 18 should have some basic estate planning in place, but for those with blended families, estate planning is particularly vital.

In fact, those with blended families who have yet to create a plan or fail to update their existing plan following remarriage are putting themselves at major risk for accidentally disinheriting their loved ones. Such planning mistakes are almost always unintentional, yet what may seem like a simple oversight can lead to terrible consequences.

Here, we’ll use three different hypothetical scenarios to discuss how a failure to update your estate plan after a midlife remarriage has the potential to accidently disinherit your closest family members, as well as deplete your assets down to virtually nothing. From there, we’ll look at how these negative outcomes can be easily avoided using a variety of different planning solutions.

Scenario #1: Accidentally disinheriting your children from a previous marriage

John has two adult children, David and Alexis, from a prior marriage. He marries Moira, who has one adult child, Patrick. The blended family gets along well, and because he trusts Moira will take care of his children in the event of his death, John’s estate plan leaves everything to Moira.

After just two years being married, John dies suddenly of a heart attack, and his nearly $1.4 million in assets go to Moira. Moira is extremely distraught following John’s death, and although she planned to update her plan to include David and Alexis, she never gets around to it, and dies just a year after John. Upon her death, all of the assets she brought into the marriage, along with all of John’s assets, pass to Moira’s son Patrick, while David and Alexis receive nothing.

By failing to update his estate plan to ensure that David and Alexis are taken care of, John left the responsibility for what happens to his assets entirely to Moira. Whether intentionally or accidentally, Moira’s failure to include David and Alexis in her own plan resulted in them being entirely disinherited from their father’s estate.

There are several planning options John could’ve used to avoid this outcome. He could have created a revocable living trust that named an independent successor trustee to manage the distribution of his assets upon his death to ensure a more equitable division of his estate between his spouse and children. Or, he could have created two separate trusts, one for Moira and one for his children, in which John specified exactly what assets each individual received. He might have also taken advantage of tax-free gifts to his two children during his lifetime.

Whichever option he ultimately decided on, if John had consulted an experienced estate planning attorney like us, he could have ensured that his children would have been taken care of in the manner he desired.

Scenario #2: Accidentally disinheriting your spouse

Mark was married to Gwen for 30 years, and they had three children together, all of whom are now adults. When their kids were young, Mark and Gwen both created wills, in which they named each other as their sole beneficiaries. When they were both in their 50s, and their kids had grown, Bob and Gwen divorced.

Several years later, at age 60, Bob married Veronica, a widow with no children of her own. Bob was very healthy, so he didn’t make updating his estate plan a priority. But within a year of his new marriage, Bob died suddenly in a car accident.

Bob’s estate plan, written several decades ago, leaves all of his assets to ex-wife Gwen, or, if she is not living at the time of his death, to his children. State law presumes that Gwen has predeceased Bob because they divorced after the will was enacted. Thus, all of Bob’s assets, including the house he and Veronica were living in, pass to his children. Veronica receives nothing, and is forced out of her home when Bob’s children sell it.

By failing to update his estate plan to reflect his current situation, Bob unintentionally disinherited Veronica and forced her into a precarious financial position just as she was entering retirement. If Bob had worked with an estate planning attorney to create a living trust, he could have arranged his assets so they would go to, and work for, exactly the people he wanted them to benefit.

For example, if he wanted the bulk of his assets to go to his children, but didn’t want to cause any disruption to Veronica’s life, he could have put his house, along with funds for its maintenance, into the trust for her benefit during her lifetime, and left the remainder of his assets to his kids. This would allow Veronica to live in and use the house as her own for the rest of her life, but upon her death, the house would pass to Bob’s children.

Scenario #3: Allowing Assets to Become Depleted
Steve is a divorcee in his early 60s with two adult children when he marries Susan. Steve has an estate valued at around $850,000, and he has told his kids that after he passes away, he hopes they will use the money that’s left to fund college accounts for their own children. But he also wants to ensure Susan is cared for, so he establishes a living trust in which he leaves all his assets to Susan, and upon her death, the remainder to his two children.

Yet, soon after Steve dies, Susan suffers a debilitating stroke. She requires round-the-clock in-home care for several decades, which is paid for by Steve’s trust. When she does pass away, the trust has been almost totally depleted, and Steve’s children inherit virtually nothing.

An experienced estate planning attorney like us could have helped Steve avoid this unfortunate outcome. Steve could have stipulated in his living trust that a certain portion of his assets must go to his children upon his death, while the remainder passed to Susan.

Additionally, Steve might have used life insurance to provide cash for Susan’s care upon his death, or he could have purchased a second-to-die life insurance policy for himself and Susan, naming his children as beneficiaries. Such a policy would ensure that regardless of the amount remaining in the trust, Steve’s children would receive an inheritance upon Susan’s death.

Bringing families together

Along with other major life events like births, deaths, and divorce, enteringinto a second (or more) marriage requires you to review and rework your estate plan. And updating your plan is exponentially more important when there are children involved in your new union.

As your Personal Family Lawyer®, we are specifically trained to work with blended families, ensuring that you and your new spouse can clearly document your wishes to avoid any confusion or conflict over how the assets and legal agency will be passed on in the event of one spouse’s death or incapacity.

If you have a blended family, or are in the process of merging two families into one, contact us, as your Personal Family Lawyer®, today to discuss all of your options.

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