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Syracuse Elder Law Blog

Can you be responsible for a deceased parent’s debts?

Losing a parent can be one of the most difficult things you may ever go through. In addition to the emotional toll the loss of a parent can take, you may also have to work through a number of estate planning and probate-related matters. If your parents failed to make estate plans, you may face even more of an uphill battle.

If your parent passed away and left considerable debt behind, you may begin fielding calls from debt collectors trying to get you to pay what your mother or father owed. Are you actually responsible for these debts if your parent dies before taking care of them?

Choosing a trustee is an important decision

New York residents who choose to include trusts in their estate plans sometimes find selecting a trustee difficult. Trusts provide individuals with more control over how their assets will be distributed, offer tax benefits and allow estates to be administered without first going through the probate process, but these and other benefits may not be fully realized if the appointed trustee is unqualified or unsuitable for the role.

In addition to distributing assets, trustees are expected to prepare and file tax documents, make investment decisions and protect the trust's assets. Individuals often choose family members or close friends to act as their trustees because they understand their financial goals, but empathy alone is no substitute for dedication, objectivity and experience. Trustees may also find it difficult to deny requests for disbursement when they have a personal relationship with the beneficiary in question who they wish to protect.

Misconceptions concerning power of attorney

One of the most essential components of any estate plan involves giving someone power of attorney. This right gives an individual the right to make legal and medical decisions on your behalf if you ever become incapable of making them independently. 

Despite its prevalence among New Yorkers, numerous myths persist around powers of attorney. You need to separate fact from fiction, so you can make informed decisions about your future. 

Key issues when making an estate plan

When New York residents think about estate planning, they may want to consider the future of their assets for generations to come. Proper estate planning can ensure that wealth passes on over generations in a way that reflects the testator's wishes for the future. In addition, many people want to make sure that the vast majority of their assets reach their beneficiaries rather than being lost to taxes and fees. There are some major issues that estate owners may consider during the planning process to help them achieve their goals.

The 2017 changes to estate tax law raised the individual exemption from estate taxes to $11.4 million, leading many to decide that they no longer needed to make tax planning a priority for their estates. However, this raised exemption will sunset in 2025 without further action by Congress, so many people planning far into the future may wish to give more attention to tax issues. Also, when estate owners pass on their retirement funds, their beneficiaries may see double taxation. Therefore, they may want to think about trusts and other structures that could help to mitigate those costs.

Estate planning in complex family situations

Between 1996 and 2018, the number of unmarried couples throughout the country who were cohabiting grew from 6 million to more than 19 million. This is only one example of the rise in nontraditional family structures. People in New York may be more likely to live as part of blended families or to be divorced or single parents than in previous generations. This can mean that much estate planning advice, which is structured for more traditional families, may not apply.

For example, people should consider where there might be misunderstandings using legal terms such as "descendants" and "issue". Adopted children or stepchildren could be inadvertently excluded. An unmarried partner could be shut out by a dead partner's family. People should also consider how their family best communicates. Individual meetings with financial advisers may work better than large family meetings in some cases.

How does the nursing home you favor deal with infections?

When looking at nursing homes for your loved one, you consider a variety of factors. You want to feel confident that Mom or Dad will feel comfortable and receive the best care.

To this end, one important question you should ask is how the staff treats residents who have infections.

Beneficiary designations important in estate planning

When people in New York decide to plan for their future, they may think about creating wills, trusts and other estate documents. However, there are other concerns to keep in mind when planning an estate. In particular, one of the most important, yet often forgotten, parts of developing an estate plan is ensuring that beneficiary designations are correct and up to date. Many of the largest parts of an estate do not pass through the probate process or are even funneled through a trust. For example, bank accounts, investment accounts, 401(k)s and life insurance policies are often distributed to a specific beneficiary named by the account holder.

By naming a "payable on death" beneficiary, people can help their heirs avoid the time and expense of probate. However, it is important that people make sure that their beneficiary designations truly reflect their goals and current relationships. For example, many individuals divorce and even remarry without thinking about the need to update their beneficiary designations. As a result, an unexpected person can end up with a substantial sum. This can lead to ongoing conflicts that are far more costly and may end with unwanted results.

How to add flexibility to an estate plan

When structured properly, trusts can be powerful estate planning tools for New York residents. In 2017, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was passed, and it increased the estate tax exemption until at least 2025. While that could be a good thing for many people, it is also worthwhile to plan for the possibility that the rules change again after the legislation expires.

Ideally, trusts will be constructed with as much flexibility as possible. One way to add flexibility is to grant trustees the ability to determine when to make distributions to beneficiaries. Where allowed under state law, decanting can be an effective way to change an estate plan to reflect a person's changing needs. Decanting allows an individual to take assets out of an irrevocable trust and put them into another such trust.

Estate planning tips for remarried individuals

Numerous documents make up an estate plan. One mistake many New Yorkers make is they assume they only need a will when, in actuality, they need a lot more paperwork to properly pass on assets to loved ones. 

Over a lifetime, someone may marry multiple times. These individuals need to be particularly cautious of their estate plan, so their assets go to the right people. When marrying for the second, third or fourth time, you want to make sure you have the following documents in place to prepare thoroughly for the future. 

Financial power of attorney

Many people living in New York understand the importance of estate planning. These individuals will write and regularly update their wills. They may also regularly review beneficiaries on insurance policies and investment accounts. However, some do not consider the possibility that they may become incapacitated before they die.

Attorneys often recommend that individuals prepare for the possibility that they may lose the ability to make decisions for themselves before they pass away. Living wills, advance directives and powers of attorney can help people ensure that their desires and needs are met even if they fall into mental decline or become so ill that they cannot communicate with others.