Thursday, March 1, 2018

K-9 Companions: Cute, Cuddly, and Good for Your Health Too!

Teresa M. Clemons
Office Manager

It can be a lonely life for senior citizens - whether living on their own or in an assisted living facility, or dealing with physical and/or mental conditions. Though it's not a cure for health issues by any stretch of the imagination, a dog can provide relief for many of the issues that our elderly population deals with daily. Whether dealing with the loss of a spouse or another loved one, or having a child move far away, the companionship of a furry, four-legged friend can lead to a different kind of love and friendship.

Living with dementia or Alzheimer’s can be very scary and can cause frustration and agitation.  The interaction with a puppy (holding, petting - which is also great for arthritis - or giving kisses) can have a calming effect. In some sufferers who have trouble eating on a regular basis, the company of a dog has actually stimulated their appetites. It can be hard for seniors to stay active if they do not get out much or do not have planned activities. A short walk (stopping and starting as many pooches do, as they have to sniff every blade of grass along the way) can be a nice, mild cardio workout! Sometimes it will lead to activities even when the dog is not physically there.  Owners may want to read about the specific breed, and having a topic to discuss with others can be a great way to stimulate the brain. The American Heart Association even released a study showing that owning or interacting with a dog can prevent heart disease! How amazing the power of a K-9 companion can be.  

Monday, February 19, 2018

Why Young People Need Estate Plans Too

Valerie M. Hollar, Paralegal
We can’t predict the future, but one thing is for sure, if we leave unanswered questions about how to settle our affairs, those that we leave behind may be left with a heavy burden. Simply put, yes, even the youthful among us need to take some time and get some degree of a plan in order. An estate plan doesn’t necessarily just mean deciding how your friends and family should divide your assets after you are gone, but also includes who would make medical decisions, who would pay your bills, and who would take care of your kids or your pets if something were to happen to you.

Every person, no matter their age, needs Powers of Attorney. There are two types of Powers of Attorney documents, a General Durable Power of Attorney and a Medical Power of Attorney. These documents allow someone to help take care of your business and medical decisions if you become incapacitated. Two other documents that are important are a Living Will and a HIPAA release form. A living will directs medical professionals to know how you wish to be treated if you are incapacitated and can’t make your own decisions. A HIPAA authorization form lets them know who they can release information to about your care.

Do you know the difference between a Living Will and a Do Not Resuscitate order (DNR)? A living will is a document that lets the doctors know how you want to be treated if you are incapacitated and there are no measures that can be taken to make you better. It usually allows for comfort care measures when death is near. A Do Not Resuscitate order is for when you do not want medical interventions to try and save your life. These are not the same documents, which is a common misconception.

First marriages are currently occurring later in life than in recent history. Couples seem to be in relationships longer these days before tying the knot. This is wonderful as it has led to a decline in divorce rates among millennials. But, it is creating a new issue. A relationship with someone does not automatically mean they are a family member in the court's eyes. It is important to have a plan in place so that your significant other can be the one making decisions for you, if that is what you want.

If you have young children, you need a will or a trust. Without naming a guardian in one of these documents, the state can appoint a guardian for your children from your family members, and it may not be someone that you want! Have you thought about how much money is needed for their care and education? If you have a complicated family situation, you need an estate plan. Divorce often leads to family situations that are less than pleasant. Often times when a spouse remarries it is important to protect their children’s inheritance from the ex-spouse or the new parent in the family. Wills and trusts can be set up to make sure that your children receive what you want them to, upon your death.

We all think that we are invincible and a lot of us have the “it won’t ever happen to me” attitude. Just because you are young, doesn’t mean you don’t need to plan. Taking the time and the money to set up provisions now is a great gift to leave those you love, just in case something tragic happens. Creating an Estate Plan means leaving as few loose ends as possible for those you love to have to tie up. You can never be too prepared, and it’s never too early to start.

Helpful Articles:

Reasons Millennials Need Estate Planning.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

A Review of the 2018 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act

Helena S. Mock, Esq.
As most of you know, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) signed into law at the end of 2017 made extensive changes to the tax laws that will affect almost all Americans beginning in 2018.  One of those changes will result in many fewer estates being subject to the 40% estate tax, and larger estates owing less tax. 

Before the TCJA, the first $5 million (as adjusted for inflation in years after 2011) of transferred property was exempt from estate and gift tax. For estates of decedents dying and gifts made in 2018, this “basic exclusion amount” as adjusted for inflation would have been $5.6 million, or $11.2 million for a married couple with proper planning and estate administration allowing the unused portion of a deceased spouse's exclusion to be added to that of the surviving spouse (known as “portability”). 

The new law, however, temporarily doubles the amount that can be excluded from these transfer taxes. For decedents dying and gifts made from 2018 through 2025, the TCJA doubles the base estate and gift tax exemption amount from $5 million to $10 million. Indexing for post-2011 inflation, brings this amount to approximately $11.2 million for 2018 ($22.4 million per married couple).

As a result of the large estate tax exemption amount, many estates no longer need to be concerned with the federal estate tax.  Much of the planning done prior to 2011, and even many done since then, centered on estate tax avoidance but completely ignored minimizing income tax. But with so few estates now being subject to estate tax, planning for such estates can be devoted almost exclusively to saving income taxes. While saving both income and transfer taxes has always been a goal of estate planning, it was more difficult to succeed at both when the estate and gift tax exemption level was much lower. Below are some tax planning strategies you may want to revisit in light of the larger exemption amount and other recent changes in the law.

Gifts that use the annual gift tax exclusion are one example. One of the benefits of using the gift tax annual exclusion to make transfers during life is to save estate tax. This is because both the transferred assets and any post-transfer appreciation generated on the gifted assets are removed from the donor's estate. However, because the estate tax exemption amount is so large, estate tax savings may no longer be necessary. Making an annual exclusion transfer of appreciated property carries a potential income tax cost because the person receiving the gift receives the donor's basis upon transfer. Thus, the recipient could face an income tax liability (a capital gains tax) if the gifted property were later sold. If there is no concern the donor’s estate will be subject to estate tax, then the donor must consider whether it is wise to make the gift now or wait and leave the property to the individual at death because appreciated property which passes to a beneficiary at death will get a step-up in basis that will wipe out the capital gains tax on any appreciation occurring between the date the property was acquired and the date of death.

No longer is it necessary to engage in complicated planning to equalize the estates of both spouses so that each can take advantage of the estate tax exemption amount. Generally, a two-trust plan (generally referred to as a credit shelter (bypass, family, residuary, etc.) trust and marital trust) was established to minimize estate tax. “Portability,” or the ability to apply the decedent's unused exclusion amount to the surviving spouse's transfers during life and at death, became effective for estates of decedents dying after 2010, but the concept wasn’t made permanent until 2013. As long as the election is made, portability allows the surviving spouse to apply the unused portion of a decedent's applicable exclusion amount (the deceased spousal unused exclusion (DSUE) amount) as calculated in the year of the decedent's death. The portability election gives married couples more flexibility in deciding how to use their exclusion amounts.

Estate exclusion or valuation discounts that do not preserve the step-up in basis may no longer be desirable given the excessive exemption amount. Some strategies previously used to avoid inclusion of property in the estate may no longer be worth pursuing.  Instead, it may be better to have the property included in the estate or have the property not qualify for valuation discounts so that the property receives a step-up in basis, or a larger (new) basis at death. The gap between the transfer tax rate and the capital gains tax rate has narrowed, making strategies that do not preserve the step-up in basis less desirable.

For all of these reasons, and many more which are not discussed here, if your estate plan has not been updated since 2013, it merits review.  The increased exclusion amount may have an impact on your plan.  Whether you should make any changes depends on your individual goals and circumstances.

Monday, January 15, 2018

A Millennial's Perspective to Combating Phone Addiction

Elizabeth D. Johnson
Legal Assistant 
There are many things that differ between my generation and my mother’s but the one I’d like to discuss is the well-known smart phone obsession. My mother is a very smart woman but she just doesn’t get her phone like I do (no offense, mom). Honestly, she is lucky because it’s easier for her generation to shut down and step away from their “entire world in your pocket” device than it is for mine. The average person checks their phone 110-150 times per day! So, with that being said, how do I successfully cut back on cell phone usage and not start nervously twitching? Why do I even want to do this in the first place? Well, I’d like to see if I even can plus I’ve been using a smart phone for a good 10 years at least and my anxiety/stress have only gotten worse. Coincidence? Probably not.

So how do I actually do this? Where do I even begin? First things first, I’ve got to start with social media, i.e. Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat. I have started setting up a shortcut that with three clicks of the home button, turns my screen black and white, hopefully making social media “less attractive”. Then, I will designate a certain time in the day to check my social media accounts. For example, when I get home from work the first thing I like to do is plop on the couch and scroll through everything, so that will be my Instagram and Snapchat time. Facebook is something I care less about since it really only connects me to the people I vaguely remember from high school. So, I will delete this app from my phone and check Facebook during my lunch break on a computer.

One tip I read about and may (or may not, let’s be real) try is to not use your phone as an alarm clock. I have my phone as my alarm clock now and therefore it is the first thing I touch in the morning and I see all of my text and social media notifications and lay in bed for 10 minutes longer than I need to just to check everything. Plus, an actual alarm clock set further away from the bed might motivate me to get up instead of staring into an abyss of what activities my friend’s brother’s cousin got into last night. Another tip that I came up with on my own, inspired by being in group chats and hearing a constant buzz or beep every 3 seconds, was to completely silence my phone if I’m not expecting any important calls or texts. I don’t even have the vibration on to really keep the annoyance at bay. I also have specific ringtones for people like my boyfriend and mom so that if I hear it go off I will know who it is and whether or not it may be urgent.

I don’t have the best history with completing projects such as the time I said I was going vegan and then bought a block of cheese the next day. So, I don’t think I’m going to do great with this project but if it helps me combat even a little bit of the obsession, then it was well worth it.  

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The Importance of Having a Durable Power of Attorney and Medical Directive

Barbara K. Armstrong
I wanted to write a little bit about the importance of having a durable financial power of attorney and medical directive.  A week doesn’t go by when I do not receive a call from a frantic spouse, child or family member, who is concerned that a family member has become incapable of making decisions for himself (herself).  They can’t assist in taking care of the bills, assist in making medical decision, etc.  At this point, it may be too late for the incapacitated adult to sign a power of attorney and/or medical directive and a guardian/conservator will have to be appointed.  This process can take months to finalize as there are many steps involved.  Then there is the cost associated with attorney’s fees for filing the petition and various documents with the court and the fees for the guardian ad litem that is appointed by the Court for the incapacitated individual. 

There is much more involved with the establishment of a guardian and/or conservator which not only is not only expensive, it can be intrusive in the lives of all that are affected in the process. 

I cannot begin to tell you how important it is to have a power of attorney and medical directive in place.  A power of attorney authorizes a trusted individual to take care of any financial affairs of the incapacitated individual and the medical directive allows for an appointed agent to assist in making medical care decisions in the event that an individual cannot make those choices for himself (herself). 

The most common reasons I hear for not having these documents in place are:
  • Too expensive;
  • Haven’t gotten around to it;
  • Not sure I can trust anyone;
  • I don’t need it.

Whatever reason you have for not having a power of attorney or medical directive in place is not a good one.  Anyone over the age of 18 years should have such documents in place if they have the capacity to do so.  If not, they are rolling the dice and gambling with who will take care of them in the event they are not able to make decisions for themselves any longer.   So, if you do not have these documents in place, please contact us or another attorney to discuss.  The process in establishing these documents is so much easier and less expensive than the process of court proceedings in establishing a guardianship/conservatorship.  The choice is yours.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

It's Okay for Traditions to Change

Catherine E. Sears, Esq.
Nearly every family has some sort of holiday tradition. After all, traditions are often part of what makes this time of the year so special; they are time-honored routines that are fun in and of themselves, but also evoke special memories of fun holidays in earlier years.  Whether the tradition is broad in nature (seeing family members sometime during the holiday season) or specific (watching It’s a Wonderful Life on Christmas Eve while you finish wrapping last-minute presents), they are nearly always a part of the holiday experience.

However, it’s okay to break traditions, or for the tradition to evolve, especially when aging family members are involved.  There is no shame in downsizing from an eight-foot, live Douglas fir to a more manageable four-foot, pre-lit artificial tree.  Older individuals shouldn’t feel pressure in the name of tradition to climb up on ladders and line the roof with twinkling lights; a simple wreath on the front door evokes the holiday spirit too, and is a much safer way to show your holiday mood to the world.  The matriarch of the family need not always host an elaborate Christmas dinner with homemade food on fine china.  She should feel free to go to a younger family member’s home instead, or continue hosting herself, but have the meal catered and served on paper plates.

I don’t mean to be a Scrooge, but, like it or not, we are all another year older at each annual holiday celebration.  Traditions that once made sense may simply no longer be practical to implement, especially if an aging relative has physical limitations that did not exist when the tradition began.  Furthermore, family situations change.  A child might get married and begin spending alternating holidays with his new in-laws.  A relative might downsize or move out of state, making it difficult to host the holiday dinner.  A loved one might pass away at the holidays, leaving grieving family members in a less-than-festive mood.  Additionally, financial situations change, so what was once a huge stack of presents might turn into a smaller, thoughtful token of love.

It can be difficult to convince someone that he should take on a different, less strenuous role for the holidays.  Certainly, the elderly should be respected and allowed to play a useful role during this busy time of the year if they are able to do so.  However, family members sometimes – even unintentionally – put pressure on aging relatives to continue celebrating the holidays according to the same traditions that were established years and years ago.  Older people may feel that they are “ruining” their family’s holiday celebration by neglecting an old tradition, so they continue to try to keep the tradition alive against their own better judgment by climbing up that ladder, hoisting that turkey pan into the oven, or lugging dozens of ornaments up the basement stairs.

It may be too late this year to consider making a change in traditions, but keep this in mind for next year as you continue your celebrations.  Be on the lookout for signs from aging relatives that perhaps they are no longer up to the challenges that holiday traditions bring.  The holidays should be a time for spreading cheer and putting others above self.  Although it might be sad to bring a beloved tradition to an end, you might be giving your family the gift of peace of mind by being flexible and letting a new tradition begin.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Preventing Holiday Depression

Teresa M. Clemons
Office Manager
Depression can affect anyone, but holiday depression among seniors is very common. This doesn’t just apply to the “big” holidays. Birthdays, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Valentine’s Day – even Independence Day can cause them sadness. What they all have in common is that family and/or friends usually get together to celebrate. An inability to get around severely limits many seniors’ options to partake in such joyous occasions. Festive events also often make the elderly think of those who have passed before them, which can add to their sadness.

Regardless of whether your elderly loved one lives alone, with family, or in some type of assisted living or nursing home setting, watching for signs of depression is very important. Some of the common symptoms are trouble sleeping, change in appetite, lethargy, and a lack of interest in a beloved hobby or socialization. If you do not live locally and you talk on the phone with your loved one, you may hear a change in their voice or quietness that is not “the norm.” If local friends are around more often, they might be the first to see a change in behavior, so it’s important that your loved one’s friends know how to contact you so they can advise you if they suspect there is a problem. The sooner you can contact the senior’s doctor, the better, so that they can direct the senior to resources that may help. Sometimes, an anti-depressant may be necessary to get them through the “holiday blues.”

Making seniors feel like they have a purpose and have not been abandoned and forgotten is also key. If you cannot see them in person, schedule phone calls. Engage in meaningful conversation, not just idle chit-chat. This makes them feel that they are part of your life and that you recognize that they still have relevant thoughts and opinions. If you can visit, make the time you have together memorable, and more than just a token visit to say you saw them. Visiting before the big holiday and including them in the preparations can also make them feel useful.  Do things together. Write out greeting cards, wrap gifts, bake, or decorate. Help them shop online for that special birthday gift they want to buy someone. Even if their physical participation is limited, just being there and feeling like they have input makes them feel appreciated.