Care from a Distance
Sad senior woman feel lonely thinking or mourning at home

Care from a Distance

Trying to coordinate care from a distance becomes a challenge for many, especially since as many as 80% of caregivers are working. Add COVID-19 into the mix, and the situation becomes even more difficult, reports the article “When your parent is far away and you are trying to care for them” from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The starting point is to have the person you are caring for give you legal authorization to act on their behalf with a Power of Attorney for financial affairs and a Health Care Directive that gives you authority to receive health information under HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act). It is HIPAA that addresses the use, disclosure and protection of sensitive patient information.

Next, have a conversation about their finances. Find out where all of their important documents are, including insurance policies (long-term care, health, life, auto, home), Social Security and Medicare cards. You’ll want to know where their tax documents are, which will provide you with information on retirement accounts, bank accounts and investments.

Gather up family documents, including birth, death, and marriage certificates. Make sure your loved one has completed their estate planning, including a last will and testament.

Put all of this information into a binder, so you have access to it easily.

Because you are far from your loved one, you may want to set up a care plan. What kind of care do they have in place right now, and what do you anticipate they may need in the near future? There should also be a contingency plan for emergencies, which seem to occur when they are least expected.

Find a geriatric care manager or a social worker who can do a needs assessment and help coordinate services, including shopping for groceries, medication administration and help with basic activities of daily living, including bathing, toileting, getting in and out of bed, eating and dressing.

If possible, develop a list of neighbors, friends or fellow worshippers who might create a local support system. If you are not able to visit with any degree of frequency, find a way to see your loved ones on a regular basis through video calls. It is impossible to accurately assess a person’s well-being, without being able to see them. In the past, dramatic changes weren’t revealed until family members made a trip. Today, you’ll be able to see your loved one using technology.

You may need to purchase a smartphone or a tablet, but it will be worth the investment. A medical alert system will provide further peace of mind for all concerned. Regular conference calls with caregivers and your loved one will keep everyone in touch.

Care from a distance is difficult, but a well-thought out plan and preparing for all situations will make your loved one safer.

Reference: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Sep. 28, 2020) “When your parent is far away and you are trying to care for them”

Make the Most of Your Social Security Benefits

Famous motivational speaker Zig Zigler reportedly said “If you want to earn more, learn more.” That’s true for careers and investments. It is also true for Social Security. The more you know about how Social Security benefits works, the more likely you’ll be able to maximize these benefits, says the article “Social Security tips: 10 ways to get more money in benefits” from USA Today.

  1. Check your Social Security work record for errors. Create an account for yourself at the “My Social Security” page on the Social Security Administration’s website. You’ll be able to see your entire income history. Check it against your tax returns to be sure that the numbers are right. If you see mistakes, call the SSA and have them fixed now.
  2. Work for at least 35 years. The SSA uses a formula to calculate benefits based on 35 years of earnings (adjusted for inflation). If you’re thinking about working for 28 years, your benefits are going to be lower. If you can keep working to reach the 35-year mark, you’ll increase your benefits.
  3. Boost your earnings. Bigger paychecks equal bigger benefits. If it’s too late for a career change, adding a part-time job could boost your lifetime income. You could also just work a few more years—it makes a difference. The annual statement from SSA on the website will show you just how much.
  4. Wait until age 70 to start collecting. For every year after your full retirement age, your benefits grow by about 8%. If you are able to tap other sources of income before you turn 70, you can maximize this benefit.
  5. You can also start collecting benefits at age 62. Your checks will be smaller, but if you have had a job loss and need the money, you are now eligible to take them. There will be many more checks now, than if you waited until age 70. If your health is poor, or your family history does not include longevity, there’s no benefit in waiting.
  6. Understand how spousal benefits work. For non-working spouses, Social Security allows a spouse to collect a benefit based on their spouse’s earnings record – up to one half (50%) of the spouse’s benefits.
  7. Can you delay a divorce? You might be able to collect benefits based on your former spouse’s earnings record, if you meet the requirements. You need to have been married for at least ten years. If it’s been nine years, and if your not-soon-enough ex has significantly higher earnings than you, consider delaying until the ten year mark. Not everyone can do this, but if you can, it could make a big difference.
  8. Keep your income lower, while collecting Social Security. If you plan on working while collecting benefits, understand that some of your benefit dollars will be withheld. For someone who is younger than their Full Retirement Age in 2020, for every $2 earned over $18,240, $1 dollar will be deducted. If you reach Full Retirement Age in 2020, the SSA will deduct $1 for every $3 you earn above $48,500, until the month you do reach full retirement age. Be mindful of the “cost” of your working on your benefits.
  9. Find out if you qualify for survivor or disability benefits. There are Social Security benefits for spouses, ex-spouses, the disabled and survivors. Other programs with benefits include Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI).  If your spouse dies after working long enough to qualify for Social Security, the surviving spouse and children under age 17 may also be able to collect survivor benefits.
  10. Think strategically about Social Security. If your spouse has a stronger earnings history than you, they might delay collecting benefits to age 70 to maximize the size of their benefit checks. If they die before you, as a surviving spouse you may collect either their benefit amount or your own—whichever is larger.

Reference: USA Today (July 28, 2020) “Social Security tips: 10 ways to get more money in benefits”

Mistakes New Parents Make with Money

The prospect of becoming a parent is exciting, but it’s also stressful, due to the sleepless nights and the never-ending expenses associated with caring for a child. The latest research from the USDA found that the average middle-income family spends about $12,300 to $13,900 on child-related expenses annually. New parents ought to plan ahead to avoid common money mistakes.

The Street’s recent article entitled “Biggest Money Mistakes New Parents Make” says that with the current economic issues from the coronavirus pandemic, 59% of U.S. households are seeing a reduction in income since March. That’s why it’s more important for families to carefully create a budget, anticipate all potential expenses and watch their spending. To do this, new parents should avoid five common money mistakes made by new parents.

  1. Getting Big. Upgrading your home and car for a new baby seems practical. However, this adds an unnecessary financial burden during an already tough time. Little babies don’t require much space. Because there are many new expenses in caring for an infant, such as diapers and unanticipated medical bills, new parents should try to settle into their new life first and adjust to the new budget prior to making major upgrades.
  2. Lowballing Childcare Costs. Parents can pay about $565 per week for a nanny and $215 for a daycare center says Care.com. However, in addition to the working day, parents can miss planning for the additional care they may need on nights and weekends. This can add up, with the average hourly rate for a babysitter at $15. New parents ought to consider setting up a babysitting exchange with other families in the neighborhood or with relatives who have children around the same age. This can be a big saver.
  3. No life insurance or estate planning. It’s not a fun topic, but life insurance and estate plans provide financial safety nets for your family. Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney, and when looking into term life insurance, try to buy five to 10 times your annual salary in coverage.
  4. Too much spending on gadgets. New parents can go crazy shopping for new clothing and infant gear, thinking that these things will make caring for baby easier. This can be a mistake! Many of these items are only used for a short while, so it’s better to borrow or buy used. For essentials, you can’t avoid buying items like a car seat or crib, but search for deals online first.
  5. Delaying Saving for College. College is way off but the earlier you start saving, the easier it will be to meet your savings goal. The longer you delay beginning to save, the more money you’ll need to put away each month. Saving a little bit is better than nothing, even if it’s just $20 a month. You can also start a 529 College Savings Plan to help your savings grow like a retirement fund.

Reference: The Street (Sep. 9, 2020) “Biggest Money Mistakes New Parents Make”

Estate Planning for Business Owners

Do you need an estate plan? If you have children, ownership shares in a business, or even in more than one business, a desire to protect your family and business if you became disabled, or charitable giving goals, then you need an estate plan. The recent article “Estate planning for business owners and executives” from The Wealth Advisor explains why business owners, parents and executives need estate plans.

An estate plan is more than a way to distribute wealth. It can also:

  • Establish a Power of Attorney, if you can’t make decisions due to an illness or injury.
  • Identify a guardianship plan for minor children, naming a caregiver of your choice.
  • Ensure that assets are controlled through beneficiary designations rather than simply through a will and pass privately when owned through trusts. This includes retirement plans, life insurance, annuities and some jointly owned property.
  • Create trusts for beneficiaries who are younger, disabled, or others you feel need some kind of protection.
  • Identify professional management for assets in those trusts.
  • Minimize taxes and maximize privacy through the use of planning techniques.
  • Create a structure for your philanthropic goals.

Estate planning is especially necessary for business owners, as it ensures that fiduciaries are identified to oversee and distribute assets as you want. Business owners, in particular, need estate plans to manage ownership assets, which requires more sophisticated planning. Ideally, you have a management and ownership succession plan for your business, and both should be well-documented and integrated with your overall estate plan.

Some business owners choose to separate their Power of Attorney documents, so one person or more who know their business well, as well as the POA holder or co-POA, are able to make decisions about the business, while family members are appointed POA for non-business decisions.

Depending on how your business is structured, the post-death transfer of the business may need to be a part of your estate plan. A current buy-sell agreement may be needed, especially if there are more than two owners of the business.

An estate plan, like a succession plan, is not a set-it-and-forget it document. Business owners ought to conduct regular reviews to ensure that any changes are documented, from the size of your overall estate to the people you choose to make key decisions.

Reference: The Wealth Advisor (July 28, 2020) “Estate planning for business owners and executives”

When Do We Need an Elder Law Attorney?

Kiplinger’s article “When Elder Care Requires Legal Advice” explains that this is when a lot of panicked calls are made to elder law attorneys. These elder law attorneys specialize in planning for the legal complications that can arise in old age. However, seldom do people think to consult one preemptively to avoid making that panicked phone call in the first place.

Elder law attorneys work in the best interests of the older person, although how that is accomplished may differ. If the senior is competent and contacts the attorney, it can be fairly straightforward. However, if an adult family member or friend is an agent or has power of attorney for an elderly person—and asks for help, the attorney is representing the agent. In any event, anyone who has power of attorney has a fiduciary responsibility to do what is best for the elderly person granting them that authority.

If a power of attorney isn’t in place and the elderly parent is incapable of giving it, the family is required to go to court to have someone appointed as a guardian, which can be a time-consuming option. If a parent is cognitively capable and doesn’t want help, there’s nothing an attorney can do about it.

Although state laws vary, elder law primarily concerns these topics:

  • The client’s wishes and health
  • Family dynamics; and
  • The client’s financial assets and income.

An elder law attorney will also make sure that all important documents are in place and up-to-date, according to state laws. This includes a will, a trust, a power of attorney and an advance directive that includes a health care proxy.

Elder law attorneys also help moderate tough decisions, like when family members can’t agree about how a loved one wanted to be buried.

In addition, elder care lawyers understand the complex laws for Medicaid and VA benefits. An elder care lawyer can speak to many other issues, ranging from long-term care insurance to capital gains taxes.

A key when meeting with an elder law attorney is that you feel comfortable, that you’re not rushed and that your questions are answered.

Reference: Kiplinger (Sep. 15, 2020) “When Elder Care Requires Legal Advice”

Pandemic Impacts Visiting Nursing Homes

In nursing homes where visits have resumed, they’re much changed from those before the pandemic. Nursing homes visits have been limited as long-term care facilities are taking steps to minimize any chances of transmission of COVID-19 to grandma and grandpa. To date, virus has been found in about 11,600 long-term care facilities, causing more than 56,000 deaths, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

AARP’s recent article entitled “When Can Visitors Return to Nursing Homes?” explains that the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has provided benchmarks for state and local officials to use, in deciding when nursing home visits can return and how to safeguard against new outbreaks of COVID-19 when they do. The CMS guidelines are broad and nonbinding, and there will be differences, from state to state and nursing home to nursing home, regarding when visits resume and how they are handled. Here are some details about the next steps toward reuniting with family members in long-term care.

When will visits resume? As of mid-July, 30 states permitted nursing homes to proceed with outdoor visits with strict rules for distancing, monitoring and hygiene. The CMS guidelines suggest that nursing homes continue prohibiting any visitation, until they have gone at least 28 days without a new COVID-19 case originating on-site (as opposed to a facility admitting a coronavirus patient from a hospital). CMS says that these facilities should also meet several additional benchmarks, which include:

  • a decline in cases in the surrounding community
  • the ability to provide all residents with a baseline COVID-19 test and weekly tests for staff
  • enough supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) and cleaning and disinfecting products; and
  • no staff shortages.

Where visits are permitted, it should be only by appointment and in specified hours. In some states, only one or two people can visit a particular resident at a time. Even those states allowing indoor visits are suggesting that families meet loved ones outdoors. Research has shown that the virus spreads less in open air.

Health checks on visitors. The federal guidelines call for everyone entering a facility to undergo 100% screening. However, the CMS recommendations don’t address testing nursing home visitors for COVID-19.

Masks. The federal guidelines say nursing home visitors should be required to “wear a cloth face covering or face mask for the duration of their visit,” and states that allow visitation are doing so. The guidelines also ask nursing homes to make certain that visitors practice hand hygiene. However, it doesn’t say whether facilities should provide masks or sanitizer.

Social distancing. The CMS guidelines call on nursing homes that allow visitors to ensure social distancing, but they don’t provide details. States that have permitted visits, state that facilities enforce the 6-foot rule.

Virtual visits. Another option is to make some visits virtual. Videoconferencing and chat platforms have become lifelines for residents and families during the pandemic. Continued use after the lockdowns can minimize opportunities for illness to spread.

Here at the Law Office of Michael T. Huguelet, P.C., we understand that the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted your daily life. With visits limited, having a loved one living in a nursing home can take an emotional toll.

Reference: AARP (July 22, 2020) “When Can Visitors Return to Nursing Homes?”

How Does Guardianship Work?

How does guardianship work? For the most part, we are free to make our own decisions regarding how we live, where we live, how we spend our money and even with whom we socialize. However, when we are no longer capable of caring for ourselves, most commonly due to advancing age or dementia, or if an accident or illness occurs and we can’t manage our affairs, it may be necessary to seek a guardianship, as explained in the recent article “Legal Corner: A guardian can be a helpful tool in cases of incapacity” from The Westerly Sun. A guardianship is also necessary for the care of a child or adult with special needs.

If no proper estate planning has been done and no one has been given power of attorney or health care power of attorney, a guardianship may be necessary. This is a legal relationship where one person, ideally a responsible, capable and caring person known as a guardian, is given the legal power to manage the needs of a ward, the person who cannot manage their own affairs. This is usually supported through a court process, requires a medical assessment and comes before the probate court for a hearing.

Once the guardian is qualified and appointed by the court, they have the authority to oversee everything about the ward’s life. They have power over the ward’s money and how it is spent, health care decisions, residential issues and even with whom the ward spends time. At its essence, a guardianship is akin to a parent-child relationship.

Guardianships can be tailored by the court to meet the specific needs of the ward in each case, with the guardian’s powers either limited or expanded, as needed and as appropriate.

The guardian must report to the court on a yearly basis about the ward’s health and health care and file an annual accounting of what has been done with the ward’s money and how much money remains. The court supervision is intended to protect the ward from mismanagement of their finances and ensure that the guardianship is still needed and maintained on an annual basis.

The relationship between the ward and the guardian is often a close one and can continue for many years. The guardianship ends upon the death of the ward, the resignation or removal of the guardian, or in cases of temporary illness or incapacity, when the ward recovers and is once again able to handle their own affairs and make health care decisions on their own.

If and when an elderly family member can no longer manage their own lives, guardianship is a way to step in and care for them, if no prior estate planning has been done. It is preferable for an estate plan to be created and for powers of attorney be created, but in its absence, this is an option.

Reference: The Westerly Sun (Sep. 19, 2020) “Legal Corner: A guardian can be a helpful tool in cases of incapacity”

Key Parts of Estate Plan

The importance of having key estate planning documents cannot be overstated. That includes a will, an advance directive, powers of attorney for health care and financial matters and guardianships for minor children. Trusts may also be part of an estate plan, and they need to be created and funded in a timely manner. However,, according to the article “7 Things Your Client’s Estate Plan Might Be Missing: Morningstar” from Think Advisor, there are a number of frequently overlooked estate planning documents that make a difference.

Financial Overview. This gives a broad outline of your assets and can be a useful discussion starting point, when one spouse manages the money and the other needs to be brought up to speed. It includes information about larger assets, including the home, investments, cars and other valuables.

A Directory. Creating a complete master list of all accounts, including the account number, website addresses and the names of any individuals that you deal with on a regular basis, avoids sending loved ones on a scavenger hunt. Keep this document safe—either encrypt it or keep it in a locked, fireproof safe in your home.

Personal Property. Wills contain directions about property, but not everything gets included. Make a list of any tangible personal property that you want to go to specific people, like jewelry or artwork, and create a detailed memo. It won’t be part of the will, but most states consider such memos legally binding, as long as they are mentioned in the will. Your estate planning attorney will know what is best for your situation and in your state.

Plan for Pets. The best way to do this is with a pet trust, which is enforceable. You name a person to take care of your pets, and how much money they should use to care for the pet. The will can be used to specify who should be your pet’s caretaker. You can leave assets for the pet, but the designated person is not legally bound to use the money for the pet’s well-being.

Digital Estate Plan. Make a plan for your digital property, including tangible digital devices, like computers and phones and the data stored on devices in the cloud and online accounts, including social media, websites, emails, photos, videos, etc. Start by making an inventory of all digital accounts, which needs to be stored in the same way your directory is: under lock and key.

End of Life Plan. Advance directives are estate planning documents that are used to direct your wishes towards life-extending care, but they don’t always go into detail. Providing additional information to loved ones who might need to make health care decisions could alleviate a lifetime of guilt. Having conversations is a starting point but putting your wishes into a document is better.

Ethical Will. An ethical will in which the person hands down their belief system to loved ones is a gift and part of your legacy. What would you want the next generation to know about your beliefs? What life lessons do you want to share?

Reference: Think Advisor (July 22, 2020) “7 Things Your Client’s Estate Plan Might Be Missing: Morningstar”

Should I Write My Will During the Pandemic?

Writing a will allows you to instruct your executor how you want your assets to be distributed when you die. If you have minor children, your will ought to include instruction on who will raise them if you die and their other parent is deceased.

The Oakland Press’s article entitled Writing a will today is more important than ever” says that if you pass away before writing a will, the state will make these critical decisions for you. What the state decides may not reflect your wishes. This may create conflict and stress within your family and cause financial troubles for those you leave behind. It may be important to note that, in this scenario, none of your assets will go to your favorite charities.

Writing a will, as with other estate planning documents, is critical because this gives you control over how your affairs are handled when you die. This includes the way in which your assets are distributed and who will take care of your children, if they’re minors.

When you are writing your will, it’s important that it’s legally valid. There’s no guarantee that a will prepared without an estate planning lawyer will meet the criteria. If the probate judge doesn’t accept your will, it’s as if you died without one.

As a result, it’s very important that you work with a qualified estate planning attorney writing a will. If you don’t, it is possible that your will or other estate documents you purchased online might not meet the state requirements.

Therefore, you’ve wasted money, and your instructions may not be followed. This can mean uncertainty in how your estate is eventually administered, and it can make an already stressful situation even worse for your family.

An experienced estate planning attorney can make sure your will meets the state’s requirements, decreases hard feelings within your family and keeps your family from challenging its validity in court.

If you have written a will already, consider updating it, especially if a beneficiary listed on the document has died, if you’ve sold your home and bought another, given away some of your possessions, your financial circumstances or the value of your property has changed, or your charity relationships have changed.

You may want to change your estate plan when your children become adults or if others that were provided for in the estate plan are no longer living.

Writing a will is a delicate process that requires the expertise of a professional estate planning attorney.

Reference: Oakland Press (May 16, 2020) Writing a will today is more important than ever”

How Can I Avoid Family Fighting in My Estate Planning?

It’s not uncommon for parents to modify their first estate plans, when their children become adults. At that point, many parents’ estate plans are designed to help efficiently transfer assets to the surviving spouse and ultimately to the adult children. Avoid family feuds and fighting in your estate plan by working with a professional estate planning attorney. With proper estate planning counsel, hiccups and headaches will be few and far between.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “Three Steps To Estate Planning Without The Family Friction” explains that there are a number of reasons for siblings fighting in the inheritance process. The article says that frequently there are issues that stem from a lack of communication between siblings, which causes doubts as to how things are being done. In addition, siblings may not agree if and how property should be sold and maintained. To help avoid estate planning fighting, use this three-step process for estate planning. After all, family feuds and animosity are avoidable.

Work with an experienced estate planning attorney. Hire an estate planning attorney who has many years of working in this practice area. This will mean that they’ve seen—and more importantly—resolved every type of family fight and discrepancy that can arise in the estate planning process. That’s the know-how that you’re really paying for, in addition to his or her legal expertise in wills and trusts.

Create a financial overview. This will help your beneficiaries see what you own. A financial overview can simplify the inheritance process for your executor, and it can help to serve as the foundation for you and your executor to frankly communicate with future beneficiaries to reduce any lingering doubts or questions that they may have, when they’re not in the loop. This clarity replaces estate planning fighting with resolution. Your inventory should at least include the following items:

  • A list of all assets, liabilities and insurance policies you have and their beneficiaries
  • Contact information for all financial, insurance and legal professionals with whom you partner;
  • Access information for any websites your beneficiaries may need for your online accounts; and
  • A legacy letter that discusses non-financial items for your children.

Hold a family meeting. Next, conduct a family meeting that includes the parents and the children who will be inheriting assets. Some topics for this meeting include:

  • The basics of your estate intentions
  • Verify that a trusted person knows the location of your important estate documents
  • State who your executor and other involved people will be and your rationale
  • Make certain that all parties value communication and transparency during this process; and
  • Discuss non-financial legacy items that are important for you to give to your children.

This three-step process can help keep your children’s relationships intact after you are gone. The last thing that any family wants to experience upon the death of a loved one is drawn-out fights regarding ones estate. Hiring an experienced estate planning attorney, creating a clear financial overview and communicating what’s important to you are critical steps in helping to keep your family together.

Reference: Forbes (July 2, 2020) “Three Steps To Estate Planning Without The Family Friction”