Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Emergency Notification System via Cell Phone

In light of recent events, we thought it would be a great time to remind local residents of a very useful Emergency Notification System available to area residents through their cell phones.  Please note that this notification system only works within  Bastrop, Blanco, Burnet, Caldwell, Fayette, Hays, Lee, Llano, Travis, and Williamson Counties.

Since an increasing number of area residents rely exclusively on their cellular telephones as their primary telephone, CAPCOG (Capital Area Council of Governments) has added the ability to notify you on your cell phone if there is an emergency near your home, business, or other location.

You may now link your cellular telephone number to one or more locations within the 10-county CAPCOG region listed above, including your home, business, and the homes of relatives.  If a participating local government activates the system for an area containing one or more of the locations registered to a specific cellular phone number, then the system will attempt to send the emergency message to that cellular telephone.

The registration process only takes a few minutes and could potentially make a big difference to someone's well being during an emergency situation.  Please pass along this helpful tip to your family members, friends, and neighbors!

To register for this service, click here.
If you have previously registered and want to make changes, click here.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Legal Issues for Family Caregivers

There are two phases of legal planning for a caregiver:  How to protect the independence, assets, and family of the person needing care in the good days and during the time of needing help due to mental or physical incapacity.   The best planning provides maximum personal independence, protection of assets, and protection of other family members. The following are some legal techniques that can help accomplish planning goals.

Phase One:  The Good Days (or mostly good days).  This phase assumes that the person creating a plan is competent.  This means they are mentally and physically able to contract.
         •  Sign a Financial Power of Attorney.  This gives the person listed the right to do modest financial business on behalf of the person who signs the documents.
         •  Sign a Health Power of Attorney and Living Will.  This document provides for the person who can make health decisions with the treating health professionals, and also allows for an election of the type of care to be provided when death is near. 

         •  Sign a Last Will and Testament.  This document will indicate who is in charge of the finances after death and who is to receive the decedent’s property.

         •  If a caregiver spouse or the person being cared for is a Veteran, contact the Veteran’s administration or an attorney accredited with the Veteran’s Administration to see what benefits are available to help pay for caregivers.

         If one of the planning goals includes protecting assets for the person being cared for, as well as their spouse or family, there are more complex legal plans that can help.

                  •  Have the individual requiring care sign a revocable trust, providing for others to manage finances and make health decisions.  This trust also covers who is to receive that individual’s assets when they die.

                  •  For a married person, often the healthy, caregiver spouse, can sign a Last Will and Testament, that provides if the healthy spouse dies first, the deceased spouse’s share of the family assets will be set aside for the benefit of the ill spouse, in a manner that continues to provide support but will not interfere with the ability to receive government benefits.

                 •  Single and married people can protect substantial assets if they have the ability to pay their expenses for at least five years. 

Phase Two:  The Bad Days – Incompetency.  At this time the individual being cared for lacks the mental or physical capacity to contract and, therefore, cannot sign legal documents.

         •  It may be possible for the incompetent person’s agents on the financial power of attorney, the health power of attorney, and the Trustee of a revocable trust to work with those documents without the need for a court order.

         •  If there is no financial power of attorney and no health power of attorney, it may be necessary to file papers in the local Court to ask that someone be appointed as Conservator and Guardian for the incapacitated person in order to give someone the legal right to make financial and health decisions for the vulnerable person.  The Conservator makes financial decisions, and the Guardian makes the health and housing decisions.  Many times the Conservator and the Guardian are the same person.  It is necessary to use an attorney to help with this process.

         •  The caregiver needs to consider how to pay for the care required.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Effect of Presidential Budget on Estate Planning

Nothing about the law is ever entirely static. Obviously legal rules and principles change over time. However, some practice areas are far more stable than others. For example, the general process to recover for personal injuries in a car accident is roughly the same now as in the past. At the other end of the spectrum, certain estate planning processes can change virtually every year. This is because much of this type of planning is centered on tax savings. In this way, it mirrors applicable tax rules, and any change in these rules requires changes in estate planning details.

Possible Changes
For example, consider the estate planning changes that may need to be made if the latest presidential budget proposals are enacted.  Advisor One recently shared information on those possible alterations. The President's proposed 2013 budget includes some so-called "tax loophole" closings which may alter what planners do for future clients. For one thing, "grantor annuity trusts" (GRATs) would be curtailed under the latest proposals. GRATs are often helpful in eliminating the gift tax costs of transferring assets to others. This works by creating a trust that is funded with an asset that will appreciate in value. The grantor retains the right to the annuity interest for a set number of years with the remaining assets being transferred to beneficiaries as long as the grantor is still alive. As it now stands grantors can set up GRATs while collecting interest for as little as two years. However, the latest proposals would add risk into the mix by having a minimum of a ten year term with maximum life expectancy of annuitant plus ten years.

In addition, dynasty trusts may be affected by the President's proposed budget. The story explains how these trusts are often used to transfer assets throughout generations without gift or estate tax penalties. However, the latest proposals would cap those benefits at 90 years, potentially limiting the value of the trust.
It is important to note that these possible changes are not guaranteed. As with so many of these issues in recent years, everything ultimately depends on how the executive and legislative branches are able to hammer out any sort of compromise. At this point it is mostly a guessing game as to what will or will not make it into law.

Of course there is little that the individual community members can do to influence these decisions.  At the very least it is important to be aware of potential changes and work with an estate planning attorney to understand what decisions are smart now in anticipation of possible changes in the future.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Not All Funeral Homes Are Created Equal

You thought you had taken care of everything. Your family would not be troubled with a cremation decision at the time of your death.  After all, you completely paid for and signed a pre-need cremation contract with a reputable funeral home.

Think again.  Local funeral homes often add a post-death extra requirement.  Spouses won't have a problem, but if another family member is trying to set up the paid-for cremation at the time of death, many funeral homes insist that a multi-page Authorization for Cremation be signed.  The Authorization has the signer indemnify, defend, and hold harmless the funeral home and crematory (paying their legal fees) if they are caught up in a lawsuit over the disposition.

Sometimes the next of kin does not approve of cremation, which may be why you signed the contract beforehand.  What happens in the case where some kin won't sign the Authorization for Cremation?  One funeral establishment said a single relative's signing won't work if others object and suggested that the matter go to court.  Who is going to pay for that?  Also, some kin cannot be located.  One decedent's body had to remain chilled for 13 days while five adult children, who lived all across the country, were located and persuaded to sign.  Another family was pressured into securing notarized signatures from two elderly siblings who are afflicted with Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.  These elderly siblings were forced to go out in a snowstorm to sign.  Why aren't your wishes simply being honored? You paid the funeral home and signed a contract with explicit details regarding your wishes.

What does the law say?  Everyone agrees that your agent, under a power of attorney, does not control your remains since a power of attorney expires upon death.  An Executor under your Will does not control your remains. They only control your estate property.  Who controls your remains?  There is a form in a Texas statute which allows an Appointment of Agent to Control Disposition of Remains.  Of course this agent also assumes financial responsibility for the handling, to the extent it is not already paid for, in addition to other duties.

This same Texas law also provides that neither permission of next of kin nor an agent under the Appointment of Agent form is needed if you have already provided written directions for the disposition.  This includes cremation in a will, a prepaid funeral contract, or a written instrument signed and acknowledged by you.  In 2005, the Texas Attorney General wrote that a funeral establishment need not obtain "a cremation authorization form" signed by an "authorizing agent" when a purchaser of a prepaid funeral contract has previously specified disposition of the purchaser's remains by cremation ..." The decedent had already "authorized."

Question settled?  No. The 2009 Texas Legislature was persuaded to add a new section stating that the cremation authorization form is not required if (1) the decedent left proper written cremation directions and (2) the authorizing agent refuses to sign the form.  An attorney for a local funeral home interprets this to mean that there has to be both a prepaid cremation plan and a cremation authorization form signed by kin or an agent after death. The words arguably do not say this, but the attorney claims that almost all crematories require the forms.  Oddly enough, the added law allows a crematory to cremate without the form if (1) cremation costs are paid and (2) the authorizing agent provides a positive written identification of the human remains.

Why do funeral establishments add requirements which the law does not?  The friends and/or family are in a weak bargaining position; burdened by grief, pressured by time, reluctant to argue in court while the funeral home has the body.  A suit on the contract could be considered or a transfer could be made to a cooperative funeral home, but these are very inconvenient options. Some funeral homes and crematories are concerned about being involved in a lawsuit, but the law provides that a funeral home or related entity shall not be liable for carrying out the written directions of a decedent or the directions of any person who represents that the person is entitled to control the disposition of the decedent's remains.  If they cannot be liable for carrying out your wishes then they have no reason to require your agent or kin to sign their form and agree to indemnify them.

Should you find yourself in such a predicament and persuasion does not work, the consumer has the recourse of filing a complaint with the Texas Department of Banking at  Also, before you buy a prepaid cremation plan, or even if you already have one, consider talking with your lawyer about how to handle this situation.