Monday, December 19, 2011

Holidays Are Prime Time to Discuss Estate Planning

Estate planning is about setting ones affairs in order for the benefit of friends and family.  In that way, the holiday season is a natural time to discuss these matters, because it is now when many families are getting together as a group. Particularly for families that do not live close together, this time of the year may be the only one when everyone is all in one place.

This doesn't mean that you need to spend time delving into the specific details of a plan over holiday dinners, but simply mentioning the topic lightly can be important to start the conversation.  If parents or adult childen do not seem willing to get into the details during the holiday, simply explain that you'd like to discuss the subject at a later time. However, if they are receptive, it is helpful to ask them some basic questions. For example, some parents may already have wills drafted.  If so, it is important for other family members to know where it is located and how to access it.  If a will is used, children should ask who has been named executor.  The same is true when more advanced tools like trusts are used, since in those successor trustees have to be named.  Seemingly simple choices come loaded with problems--for example, choosing one child over another for these duties may create hard feelings.  Discussing them ahead of time is often a good approach.

Beyond subtle prompting to get certain estate planning affairs clear, the holidays may also be a good time to share exactly how certain sentimental objects will be distributed.  Of course, each family is different and this may cause discord. However, it is never a good idea for family members to learn who is set to receive certain objects only after a loved one has passed, particularly items with emotional attachments.  Because everyone is together, the holidays may be the ideal time for grandparents or parents to clearly explain what steps they've taken and to answer any questions that family members may have.  The input that they receive from family members may also prove helpful in case something has been left out of planning

All of us at The Greening Law Firm, P.C. wish you very happy holidays.  We are proud to serve the Austin area with estate planning, estate administration, probate, and elder law, and we are excited to begin a new year with our clients, friends, and colleagues.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Squatters Taking Over Tarrant County Homes

This past weekend, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram published an article highlighting rampant squatting this year in the north Texas County of Tarrant.  County records show that over $8 million worth of property was been claimed by squatters in 2011 when owners were away for long periods or bank owned properties from the housing crisis were vacant.  Among the audacious take-overs were a transplant from Memphis who took over a $2.7 million mansion with an elevator and a five car garage, career criminals who leased squatted homes to tenants, and people citing the Bible as legal justification for their actions.

Unfortunately, the struggle to oust these unlawful tenants is more complicated than it may seem.  There is a loophole in a state law, which allows people to claim abandoned portions of property if there is no owner to dispute the claim.  The original intent of the law was to assist ranchers in claiming vacant land that they had tended to for years.  This law, though, doesn't distinguish between a section of sod worth a few dollars and a mansion worth millions of dollars.  To stake a claim even a court could have a hard time disputing, one need only complete the proper paperwork for a $16 filing fee, maintain the property taxes, and live in the residence for over three years.  Affidavits of possession at the Tarrant County Clerk's office have created a real estate nightmare, making the houses nearly impossible to sell because of the now confused titles of the homes. 

While it may not be a situation applicable to most homeowners, the squatting in Tarrant highlights the importance of guarding your assets.  Be mindful that scams are prevalent and planning always adds predictability. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Creating a Successful Will Requires Professional Help

A will often creates more problems than it solves. With a will, probate is involved, the information is made public, and legal challenges to the will's provisions are common. Estate planning is meant to simplify the transfer of assets, and typically the creation of a trust is a superior method of saving taxes and streamlining the process to distribute assets quickly and seamlessly.

In estate planning, there may be limited situations where a will might still be appropriate, though, depending on the age of the individual and their assets. No matter if a will or a trust is created, it is vital to have professional help in the creation. While do-it-yourself projects can produce a large return on investment for home improvements and car maintenance, it is not the same with financial planning. When professional help is not sought and a will is self-written, it is only at the moment when the document is needed to work that its flaws come to light. At that point, there is no going back.

As Forbes recently explained in "The Case Against Do-It-Yourself Wills," when done without experienced aid, wills are often filled with errors. For example, common mistakes include failure to sign the will, not updating it, or adding amendments improperly -- all of which can nullify the document. Without the guidance of professionals, imprecise wording is often used. It is much harder than many suspect to craft legal documents with language that is void of any ambiguity. Without the author present, vague language will be easy to misinterpret. Estate planning lawyers are well versed in crafting legally precise terms in standard language that doesn't equivocate.

Besides making sure one's specific intentions are explained without ambiguity in the will, a legal professional can also ensure that important issues are incorporated into the document. When drafting a will on their own, many community members fail to consider important issues. What happens if an heir dies first? What happens when an asset distributed in a will is no longer owned when the will is executed? Who is responsible for paying the expenses on certain assets, like a house? A professional experienced in these matters can bring up these and many concerns that may need to be considered when going through the drafting process. This is particularly important in more complex situations, such as with blended families. The attorneys and staff at The Greening Law Firm, P.C. are always ready to discuss what planning is best for you and your family.  We stand ready to serve you.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Ten Warning Signs for Alzheimer's

November is National Alzheimer's Disease Awareness Month and Family Caregiver Month.  Please take time to thank those who devote their time to helping individuals who struggle with this disease. This is also a good opportunity to be reminded about the 10 warning signs of Alzheimer's disease as outlined by the Alzheimer's Association

1.  Memory loss that disrupts daily life.  One of the most common signs of Alzheimer's is memory loss, especially forgetting recently learned information.  Others include forgetting important dates or events; asking for the same information over and over, relying on memory aids (such as reminder notes or electronic devices), or needing family members for things they used to handle on their own. This does not mean that if you forget names or appointments, but remember them later you necessarily have Alzheimer's. 

2.  Challenges in planning or solving problems.  Some people may experience changes in their ability to develop and follow a plan or work with numbers.  They may have trouble following a familiar recipe, keeping track of bills, or concentrating.
3.  Difficulty completing familiar tasks at home, at work or at leisure.  People with Alzheimer's often find it hard to complete daily tasks.  Sometimes, people may have trouble driving to a familiar location, managing a budget, or remembering the rules of a favorite game. Occasionally needing help to use the setting on a microwave or to record a television show is typical, though.

4.  Confusion with time and place.  People with Alzheimer's can lose track of dates, seasons and the passage of time.  They may have trouble understanding something if it is not happening immediately.  Sometimes they may forget where they are or how they got there.

5.  Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships.  For some people, having vision problems is a sign of Alzheimer's.  They may have difficulty reading, judging distance, and determining color or contrast.  In terms of perception, they may pass a mirror and think someone else is in the room instead or realizing that they are the person in the mirror. Cataracts are not related to Alzheimer's and may also cause vision problems.

6.  New problems with words in speaking or writing.  People with Alzheimer's may have trouble following or joining a conversation.   They may stop in the middle of a conversation and have no idea how to continue or they may repeat themselves.  They may struggle with vocabulary, have consistent problems finding the right word or call things by the wrong name (such as calling something simple like a "watch" a "hand-clock").

7.  Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps.  A person with Alzheimer's disease may put things in unusual places and be unable to go back over their steps to find them again.  Sometimes, they may accuse others of stealing.  

8.  Decreased or poor judgment.  People with Alzheimer's may experience changes in judgment or decision-making.  For example, they may use poor judgment when dealing with money, such as giving large amounts to telemarketers.  They may pay less attention to grooming or keeping themselves clean.

9.  Withdrawal from work or social activities.  A person with Alzheimer's may start to remove themselves from hobbies, social activities, work projects, or sports.  They may have trouble keeping up with a favorite sports team or remembering how to complete a favorite hobby.  They may also avoid being social because of the changes they have experienced and fear that people may see their symptoms.

10.  Changes in mood and personality.  The mood and personalities of people with Alzheimer's can change.  They can become confused, suspicious, depressed, fearful, or anxious.  They may be easily upset at home, at work, with friends or in places where they are out of their comfort zone.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Despite Tough Economy, Baby Boomers Discuss Retirement and Long-Term Planning

It is no surprise that only 9% of Baby Boomers stated in a new Associated Press poll that they were "strongly convinced" that they would be able to live comfortably when they retired. With financial affairs in flux for many members of the 77-million strong Baby Boomer generation, many are beginning to reevaluate their retirement plans. A growing number of local residents find themselves worrying about whether they will be able to live out their golden years in comfort.

One single 47-year old woman profiled in an Associated Press story on the Baby Boomer retirement situation explained that she once planned to retire at sixty and move to the beach. Those plans changed when her pension was eliminated five years ago, her personal investments tanked, and her home of 21 years lost half its value. Now she is not sure what her future holds, but she doesn't expect to move any time soon. When asked about potentially moving when he retired, a 60-year old small business owner explained, "It just depends on what happens to the economy. I'd like to find someplace warmer and doesn't have the high taxes, but we'll just have to see." Many local residents find themselves in the same situation.

The latest poll on the topic found that about 60% of Boomers had retirement plans, personal investments, and real estate that lost value in the latest recession. As a result, more than half of that group expects to delay their retirement. According to the research, 73% of respondents claimed that they will continue to do some work even after they retire. These delayed retirement plans have also led many Boomers to admit that they no longer expect to move out of their current home, and a majority claim that they plan to live out their golden years exactly where they are now. Other priorities for soon-to-be retirees include living near their children and being close to necessary medical care.

The Greening Law Firm knows that while many local older residents would like to age in place, that plan may not be realized if proper long-term care planning is not conducted. The costs of services that a senior may likely need are often quite high. However, steps can be taken ahead of time to ensure that resources are available to pay for those services. No matter how close one is to retirement or how much the recession has affected investments, it is wise to visit with an experienced professional to prepare for long-term living and healthcare needs. Planning adds predictability!