When clients think about Asset Protection Off-shore trusts or some elaborate scheme of trusts and other entities usually come to mind.  However, there are several vehicles that are less complicated that a client can use that will probably suffice for her protection.

Here are some strategies that are not complicated and relatively easy to implement:

  1.  Purchase an Umbrella policy in addition to a Homeowners policy for your home.  An Umbrella policy is very inexpensive and will protect you for claims that exceed other policies for your home and auto.

When a guardian has been appointed for a person with a disability (the “ward”) there are sometimes disagreements as to that person’s care.  These disagreements are usually between the guardian and the other relatives of the ward.  Sometimes a guardian may attempt to push the limits of their power by blocking visitation by the ward’s adult children.  In this circumstance, the adult children may feel like they have no options but to obey the commands of the guardian.  However, under Illinois law there is a remedy available for those children.

The Illinois Probate Act provides that an adult child of a ward may petition the court if it is believed that the guardian is unreasonably preventing visitation.  755 ILCS 5/11a-17(g)(2).  If the court finds visitation to be in the best interests of the ward, the court may order the guardian to allow visitation.  When determining whether visitation is in the ward’s best interests, the primary question the court will ask is whether the ward, if competent, would have wanted to engage in visitation with the adult child.

If the wishes of the ward cannot be determined, the court will then review the following factors to determine his/her best interests:

When a guardian is appointed for a person with a disability (the “ward”), the guardian is required to follow certain guidelines.  There are two types of guardianships in Illinois, and they each have different rules to follow.

The first is “guardianship of the person.”  The guardian of the person is responsible for securing the support, care, comfort, education, and professional services for the ward.  Pursuant to the Illinois Probate Act, the guardian of the person is also expected to assist the ward in the development of maximum self-reliance and independence.  Despite the fact that guardians seemingly have a substantial amount of authority, they are not given carte blanche permission to make every decision associated with the ward.  A guardian is still expected to listen to the wishes of the ward and make an effort to carry out those wishes.  Furthermore, a guardian cannot change the residential placement of the ward without explicit authorization from the court.  This prevents a guardian from being able to place a ward in a nursing home without a thorough investigation by the court to determine if that home is in the ward’s best interests.

The second type of guardianship is called the “guardianship of the estate.”  The estate guardian is responsible for handling the finances and assets of the ward.  He/she is expected to manage the estate frugally and apply the income and principal of the estate so far as necessary for the comfort and suitable support and education of the ward (755 ILCS 5/11a-18).  The guardian may make payments directly to the ward, or to a third party to pay for things like rent, food, clothing, entertainment, etc.  Once again, this is a significant amount of power, but it is not without its limits.  A guardian of the estate can only spend the ward’s assets on things that directly benefit the ward or the ward’s minor or adult dependent children.  If the guardian is not following these guidelines, it may be grounds for the guardian to be removed.

Many times clients will call our firm and state that they need a Power of Attorney for their elderly relative because he/she has dementia or some other condition which causes diminished capacity.  Unfortunately, depending on the current mental capacity of the relative, it may be too late for them to sign a Power of Attorney.  The person signing the Power of Attorney has to completely understand the document to which they are executing.  It is not simply enough to be able to physically sign one’s name.  They need to comprehend the nature of the document and who they are appointing as their agent under the POA.

Powers of Attorney are important legal tools that allow a person to name an agent to handle their financial or medical decision making.  These are crucial documents which must be executed according to the standards set forth in the law.  If the documents are not executed properly, it could invalidate the Power of Attorney.  One common problem is where people attempt to have their relative sign the Power of Attorney when they lack the proper mental capacity.

However, even if someone does not have the proper mental capacity, there are other routes which are available to the family members.  Often times the only choice for the family in this situation is to pursue a guardianship.  When this happens, one or more of the family members will petition a court to become the court-appointed guardian of their relative (known as the “Respondent”).  If the judge approves the petition, the family member(s) will have the ability to handle the personal and financial affairs of the Respondent, in the same manner that an agent under a Power of Attorney would act.

Children under the age of 18 cannot directly inherit more than a small amount of money. If you make no provisions in your Will, a court will appoint a property guardian to manage your child’s assets until he reaches 18.

The property guardian may be a stranger who will add another layer of bureaucracy to the situation. When your child needs money, formal requests will need to be made through the court system.

One solution is to set up a custodial account for your child. You are allowed to choose the custodian, and the custodian makes decisions regarding how the money is spent. Once your child turns 18, the money is your child’s to spend as he pleases.

As Stacy L. Bradford points our in her Will Street Journal piece titled, “Deciding if Your Kid is Trust-Worthy”, a better alternative may be to set up a trust. A trust allows more control over how money is spent once the parents are gone. The parents can specify how the trust money is to be spent, for example on college tuition, and a trust can delay the age at which the child has access to the money, for example the child gets half at age 30 and the other half at 35.

The trustee makes all of the decisions, so it is important to pick a person who is trustworthy, financially astute and diligent.

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A holding by the U.S. Supreme Court in Kennedy v. Plan Administrator for DuPont Savings and Investment Plan, et al. makes clear the importance of keeping on top of estate planning matters.

In that case, a divorced father did not take all of the steps necessary to change with is pension plan the name of the beneficiary of his plan. When he died, the pension plan paid all of the benefits to the person named as the beneficiary. That person was his ex-wife. The father’s estate sued, claiming that it should have received the benefit because the ex-wife had waived her right to receive the benefit.

The law in that state held that a divorce ends the right of a spouse to an interest in the other spouse’s pension benefits.

A trial court ruled that the estate should receive the benefit. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and ruled that the ex-wife should receive the benefit. The U.S. Supreme Court confirmed.

When naming beneficiaries, it is good to keep the following in mind:

  1. It is easy to change beneficiaries. Most financial firms make copies available online or you can call and ask for them. The forms are simple. Once completed it is good to make a copy of the form after submitting it and include the form with other estate planning documents;
  2. Name an alternate beneficiary. This addresses the situation where the primary beneficiary dies before you do. It also provides for the instance where the primary beneficiary disclaims the interest.
  3. Your will has no effect regarding who receives accounts with beneficiary designations like IRAs, 401(k)s, insurance policies and annuities. Be sure to update these beneficiary designations.

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An individual takes on legal responsibilities when he agrees to be a trustee. If the trustee does not perform his duties properly, he could be personally liable.

A trust is a legal arrangement through which one person (or an institution, such as a bank or law firm), referred to as a trustee, holds legal title to the property of another person.

A trustee’s duties include locating and protecting trust assets, investing assets prudently, distributing assets to beneficiaries, keeping track of income and expenditures and filing tax returns. A trustee has a fiduciary duty to the beneficiaries of the trust, meaning that the trustee has an obligation to act in the best interest of the beneficiaries at all times. It also means that the trustee will be held to a higher standard than if the trustee were dealing with his personal finances.

A trustee is entitled to hire an attorney and other professionals like an accountant to assist in the trust administration. The attorney, accountant and other professional fees are considered an expense of trust administration and are paid from the trust funds.

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If you are caring for your mother or father, you may be able to claim your parent as a dependent on your income taxes. This would allow you to get an exemption for her or him.

There are five tests to determine if you can claim a parent as a dependent:

  1. The person you are claiming as a dependent must be related to you. This should not be a problem if you are claiming a parent (in-laws are also allowed). Keep in mind that foster parents do not count as a relative. To claim a foster parent, he must live with you for a year as a member of your household.
  2. Your parent must be a citizen or resident of the United States or a resident of Canada or Mexico.
  3. Your parent must not file a joint return. If your parent is married, he must file separately. There is an exception if your parent is filing jointly but has no tax liability. If your parent files a joint tax return solely to get a refund, you can claim him as a dependent.
  4. Your parent must not have a gross income exceeding the allowable exemption amount for that year. Gross income does not include Social Security payments or other tax-exempt income.
  5. You must provide more than half of the support for your parent during the year. Support includes amounts spent to provide food, lodging, clothing, education, medical and dental care, recreation, transportation and similar necessities. Even if you do not pay more than half of your parent’s support for the year, you may be able to claim your parent as a dependent if you pay more than 10 percent of your parent’s support for the year, and, with others, collectively contribute to more than half of your parent’s support. To receive the exemption, all those supporting your parent must agree on and sign the applicable Multiple Support Declaration (Form 2021).

If you cannot claim your parent as a dependent because he filed a joint tax return or has a gross income above the limit for that year but you have been paying for your parent’s medical expenses, you may still be able to deduct those expenses from your own taxes.

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Many people believe that if they have a Will, their estate planning is complete. But there is much more to a solid estate plan. A good plan should be designed to avoid probate, save on estate taxes, protect assets if you move to a nursing home and appoint someone to act is you become disabled.

All estate plans should include a Durable Power of Attorney for Property and a Will. A Trust can also be useful to avoid probate and to manage your estate both during your life and after you are gone. In addition, Medical Directives allow you to appoint someone to make medical decisions on your behalf.

A Will is a legally binding statement directing who will receive your property at your death. If you do not have a Will, state law determines how your property is distributed. A Will also appoints a legal representative (called an executor) to carry out your wishes. A Wills is important if you have minor children because it allows you to name a guardian for the children. However, a Will covers only probate property. Many types of property or forms of ownership pass outside of probate. Jointly owned property, property in trust, life insurance proceeds and property with a named beneficiary, such as IRAs or 401(k) plans, all pass outside of probate and are not covered under a Will.

A Trust is a legal arrangement through which one person (or an institution, such as a bank or a law firm), called a “trustee”, holds legal title to property for another person, called a “beneficiary”. There are several reasons for setting up a Trust. The common reason is to avoid probate.

Certain Trusts can result in tax advantages for the beneficiary. These are referred to as Credit Shelter Trusts. Other Trusts can be used to protect property from creditors or to help the donor qualify for Medicaid.

A Durable Power of Attorney for Property allows the person you appoint to act in your place for financial purposes if you become incapacitated. In that case, the person you choose will be able to step in and take care of your financial affairs. Without a durable power of attorney for property, no one can represent you unless a court appoints a guardian. That court process takes time and money, and the judge may not choose the person you would prefer. In addition, under a guardianship, your representative may have to seek court permission to take planning steps that he could implement immediately under a Durable Power of Attorney.

A Power of Attorney for Health Care allows you to designate someone to make health care decisions if you are unable to do so yourself. A Living Will instructs your health care provider to withdraw artificial life support if you are terminally ill or in a vegetative state.

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There is a lot of information your heirs should know which does not necessarily fit into a Will, Trust or other component of an estate plan. The solution is a Letter of Instruction which can provide your heirs with guidance if you die or become incapacitated.

A Letter of Instruction is a legally non-binding document that gives your heirs information crucial to helping them tie up your affairs. Without such a letter, heirs can miss important items.

The following are some items which can be included in a letter:

  • A list of people to contact when you die and a list of beneficiaries of your estate plan
  • The location of important documents such as your Will, insurance policies, financial statements, deeds and birth certificates
  • A list of assets such as bank accounts, investment accounts, insurance policies, real estate holdings and military benefits
  • Passwords and PINs (personal identification numbers) for online accounts
  • The location of safe deposit boxes
  • A list of contact information for lawyers, financial planners, brokers, tax preparers and insurance agents
  • A list of credit card accounts and other debts
  • Instructions for funeral or memorial service
  • Instructions for distribution of sentimental personal items

Once the letter is written, store it in an easily accessible place and tell trusted family members about it.

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