Will the Pandemic Affect My Social Security?

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “Social Security Shocker: Pandemic to Reduce Benefits by 9% for Americans Turning 60 in 2020” explains that retirees can mitigate some of the damage, by waiting to claim their benefits. For every year you delay benefits past your full retirement age until age 70, you’ll receive an increased benefit of about 8%.

Eligibility for Social Security benefits requires a senior to have earned no less than 40 “credits.” You can earn up to four credits a year, so it takes 10 years of work to qualify for Social Security benefits. In 2020, you have to earn $1,410 to get one Social Security work credit and $5,640 to get the maximum four credits for the year.

Your benefit is based on the 35 years in which you earned the most amount of money. If you have fewer than 35 years of earnings, each year with no earnings is calculated as a zero. You can increase your benefit by swapping out those zero years, by working longer, even if it’s only part-time. However, don’t worry about a low-earning year replacing a higher-earning year. It won’t happen. The benefit isn’t based on 35 consecutive years of work, it’s based on your highest-earning 35 years. As a result, if you decide to ease into retirement by working part-time, you won’t wreck the amount of your Social Security benefit at all, if you have 35 years of higher earnings. If you earn more money, however, your benefit will be adjusted upward—despite the fact that you’re still working while taking your benefit.

There is a maximum benefit amount you can get. However, it depends on your age when you retire. If you retire at full retirement age this year, the maximum monthly benefit is $3,790.

In the past, a great perk of Social Security benefits was that every year, the government would adjust the benefit for inflation. This is called a cost-of-living adjustment, or “COLA.” It’s an inflation protection to help seniors keep up with rising living expenses during retirement.

The COLA is automatic and is quite valuable because purchasing inflation protection on a private annuity can be expensive.

The COLA is calculated based on changes in a federal consumer price index (CPI). The amount of the COLA depends largely on broad inflation levels determined by the federal government.

For 2021, Kiplinger anticipates that there won’t be a Social Security cost of living adjustment. That is due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Reference: Kiplinger (July 30, 2020) “Social Security Shocker: Pandemic to Reduce Benefits by 9% for Americans Turning 60 in 2020”

Does a ‘Senior Moment’ Mean Alzheimer’s?

When your memory starts to waver, its easy to assume the worst, even Alzheimer’s disease. Considerable’s recent article entitled “What it means when you can’t remember a word” says on its own, sometimes forgetting a word is a completely normal part of life. Whew! Psychologists call this experience “tip of the tongue” state. When you forget a word, it hasn’t disappeared from memory. Actually, it is still there, but in the moment of speaking something is preventing it from being fully accessed.

What prevents the retrieval of a word? A word is a collection of features: it has a meaning and associated meanings and images. It has a form, which includes its pronunciation, a written representation and a syllable and stress pattern. Psychologists also say it leaves traces in neural connections of how frequently or recently it’s been used. Word retrieval might be disrupted by an issue in activating one or just a few of those features. Stress, fatigue and distraction can also all result in insufficient activation for retrieval.

More serious issues that damage or slow the necessary neural connections can also cause problems for word retrieval, most notable Alzheimer’s disease. The inability to find words can also signal brain injury or infection, strokes and degenerative diseases. However, in those cases, word-forgetting will be only one of many symptoms. By itself, forgetting a word once in a while is a completely normal part of life.

Forgetting a word can be annoying. However, the situation usually resolves itself quickly.

Word-forgetting can cause seniors a special kind of distress. That’s due to the fact that they worry more about what it means about the health of their memory.

Some memory functions do decline with age and are signals of Alzheimer’s or other problems. However, tip of the tongue states are independent of that type of cognitive decline.

In a study of age-related increases of tip-of-the-tongue states showed that “even though increased age is associated with lower levels of episodic memory and with more frequent TOTs [tip of the tongue states], which can be viewed as failures to access information from memory, the two phenomena seem to be largely independent of one another.”

In other words, your failure to remember a word isn’t a general memory problem in most cases. It is just a failure to remember a word.

Regardless whether your memory and mental state is in tact or wavering, prepare for whatever the future holds with careful estate planning and elder care considerations.

Reference: Considerable (July 13, 2020) “What it means when you can’t remember a word”

What’s Involved in the Probate Process?

SWAAY’s recent article entitled “What is the Probate Process in Florida?” says that while every state has its own laws, the probate process can be fairly similar. Here are the basic steps in the probate process:

The family consults with an experienced probate attorney. Those mentioned in the decedent’s will should meet with a probate lawyer. During the meeting, all relevant documentation like the list of debts, life insurance policies, financial statements, real estate title deeds, and the will should be available.

Filing the petition. The process would be in initiated by the executor or personal representative named in the will. He or she is in charge of distributing the estate’s assets. If there’s no will, you can ask an estate planning attorney to petition a court to appoint an executor. When the court approves the estate representative, the Letters of Administration are issued as evidence of legal authority to act as the executor. The executor will pay state taxes, funeral costs, and creditor claims on behalf of the decedent. He or she will also notice creditors and beneficiaries, coordinate the asset distribution and then close the probate estate.

Noticing beneficiaries and creditors. The executor must notify all beneficiaries of trust estates, the surviving spouse and all parties that have the rights of inheritance. Creditors of the deceased will also want to be paid and will make a claim on the estate.

Obtaining the letters of administration (letters testamentary) obtained from the probate court. After the executor obtains the letter, he or she will open the estate account at a bank. Statements and assets that were in the deceased name will be liquidated and sold, if there’s a need. Proceeds obtained from the sale of property are kept in the estate account and are later distributed.

Settling all expenses, taxes, and estate debts. By law, the decedent’s debts must typically be settled prior to any distributions to the heirs. The executor will also prepare a final income tax return for the estate. Note that life insurance policies and retirement savings are distributed to heirs despite the debts owed, as they transfer by beneficiary designation outside of the will and probate.

Conducting an inventory of the estate. The executor will have conducted a final account of the remaining estate. This accounting will include the fees paid to the executor, probate expenses, cost of assets and the charges incurred when settling debts.

Distributing the assets. After the creditor claims have been settled, the executor will ask the court to transfer all assets to successors in compliance with state law or the provisions of the will. The court will issue an order to move the assets. If there’s no will, the state probate succession laws will decide who is entitled to receive a share of the property.

Finalizing the probate estate. The last step is for the executor to formally close the estate. The includes payment to creditors and distribution of assets, preparing a final distribution document and a closing affidavit that states that the assets were adequately distributed to all heirs.

Reference: SWAAY (Aug. 24, 2020) “What is the Probate Process in Florida?”

Estate Planning Fast Facts
Consult with our team to find out if the Law Office of Michael T. Huguelet, P.C. is the right fit for you.

Estate Planning Fast Facts

It is true that a single person who dies in 2020 could have up to $11.58 million in personal assets and their heirs would not have to pay any federal estate tax. However, that doesn’t mean that regular people don’t need to worry about estate taxes—their heirs might have to pay state estate taxes, inheritance taxes or the estate may shrink because of other tax issues. That’s why U.S. News & World Report’s recent article “5 Estate Planning Tips to Keep Your Money in the Family” is worth reading.

Without proper estate planning, any number of factors could take a bite out of your children’s inheritance. They may be responsible for paying federal income taxes on retirement accounts, for instance. You want to be sure that a lifetime of hard work and savings doesn’t end up going to the wrong people.

The best way to protect your family and your legacy, is by meeting with an estate planning attorney and sorting through all of the complex issues of estate planning. Here are five areas you definitely need to address:

  1. Creating a last will and testament
  2. Checking that beneficiaries are correct
  3. Creating a trust
  4. Converting traditional IRA accounts to Roth accounts
  5. Giving assets while you are living

A last will and testament. It is a fact that only 32% of Americans have a will, according to a survey that asked 2,400 Americans that question. Of those who don’t have a will, 30% says they don’t think they have enough assets to warrant having a will. However, not having a will means that your entire estate goes through probate, which could become very expensive for your heirs. Having no will also makes it more likely that your family will challenge the distribution of assets. As a result, someone you may have never met could inherit your money and your home. It happens more often than you can imagine.

Checking beneficiaries. Once you die, beneficiaries cannot be changed. That could mean an ex-spouse gets the proceeds of your life insurance policy, retirement funds or any other account that has a named beneficiary. Over time, relationships change—make sure to check the beneficiaries named on any of your documents to ensure that your wishes are fulfilled. Your will does not control this distribution and is superseded by the named beneficiaries.

Set up a trust. Trusts are used to accomplish different goals. If a child is unable to manage money, for instance, a trust can be created, a trustee named and the account funded. The trust will include specific directions as to when the child receives funds or if any benchmarks need to be met, like completing college or staying sober. With an irrevocable trust, the money is taken out of your estate and cannot be subject to estate taxes. Money in a trust does not pass through probate, which is another benefit. Trusts are an important part of any estate planning toolkit.

Convert traditional IRAs to Roth retirement accounts. When children inherit traditional IRAs, they come with many restrictions and heirs get the income tax liability of the IRA. Regular income tax must be paid on all distributions, and the account has to be emptied within ten years of the owner’s death, with limited exceptions. If the account balance is large, it could be consumed by taxes. Through careful estate planning and by gradually converting traditional retirement accounts to Roth accounts, you pay the taxes as the accounts are converted. You want to do this in a controlled fashion, so as not to burden yourself. However, this means your heirs receive the accounts tax-free.

Gift with warm hands, wisely. Perhaps the best way to ensure that money stays in the family, is to give it to heirs while you are living. As of 2020, you may gift up to $15,000 per person, per year in gifts. The money is tax free for recipients. Just be careful when gifting assets that appreciate in value, like stocks or a house. When appreciating assets are inherited, the heirs receive a step-up in basis, meaning that the taxable amount of the assets are adjusted upon death, so some assets should only be passed down after you pass.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (Sep. 30, 2020) “5 Estate Planning Tips to Keep Your Money in the Family”

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”