Three Reasons Why Joint Accounts May Be a Poor Estate Plan

Many people, especially seniors, see joint ownership of investment and bank accounts as a cheap and easy way to avoid probate since joint property passes automatically to the joint owner at death. Joint ownership can also be an easy way to plan for incapacity since the joint owner of accounts can pay bills and manage investments if the primary owner falls ill or suffers from dementia. These are all true benefits of joint ownership, but three potential drawbacks exist as well:

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  1. Risk. Joint owners of accounts have complete access and the ability to use the funds for their own purposes. Many elder law attorneys have seen children who are caring for their parents take money in payment without first making sure the amount is accepted by all the children. In addition, the funds are available to the creditors of all joint owners and could be considered as belonging to all joint owners should they apply for public benefits or financial aid.
  2. Inequity. If a senior has one or more children on certain accounts, but not all children, at her death some children may end up inheriting more than the others. While the senior may expect that all of the children will share equally, and often they do in such circumstances, there’s no guarantee. People with several children can maintain accounts with each, but they will have to constantly work to make sure the accounts are all at the same level, and there are no guarantees that this constant attention will work, especially if funds need to be drawn down to pay for care.
  3. The Unexpected. A system based on joint accounts can really fail if a child passes away before the parent. Then it may be necessary to seek conservatorship to manage the funds or they may ultimately pass to the surviving siblings with nothing or only a small portion going to the deceased child’s family. For example, a mother put her house in joint ownership with her son to avoid probate and Medicaid’s estate recovery claim. When the son died unexpectedly, the daughter-in-law was left high and dry despite having devoted the prior six years to caring for her husband’s mother.

Joint accounts do work well in two situations. First, when a senior has just one child and wants everything to go to him or her, joint accounts can be a simple way to provide for succession and asset management. It has some of the risks described above, but for many clients the risks are outweighed by the convenience of joint accounts.

Second, it can be useful to put one or more children on one’s checking account to pay customary bills and to have access to funds in the event of incapacity or death. Since these working accounts usually do not consist of the bulk of a client’s estate, the risks listed above are relatively minor.

For the rest of a senior’s assets, willstrusts and durable powers of attorney are much better planning tools. They do not put the senior’s assets at risk. They provide that the estate will be distributed as the senior wishes without constantly rejiggering account values or in the event of a child’s incapacity or death. And they provide for asset management in the event of the senior’s incapacity.

They provide that the estate will be distributed as the senior wishes without constantly rejiggering account values or in the event of a child’s incapacity or death. And they provide for asset management in the event of the senior’s incapacity.  To download a FREE GUIDE TO ESTATE PLANNING click here.

For more information about this article feel free to email me at info@raphanlaw.com

Regards, Brian

Why Not Just Use an Off-the-Shelf Power of Attorney Form?

poaA durable power of attorney is one of the most important estate planning documents you can have. It allows you to appoint someone to act for you (your “agent” or “attorney-in-fact”) if you become incapacitated. Without a POA, your loved ones would not be able to make decisions for you or manage your finances without asking the court to appoint a guardian or conservator, which is an expensive and time-consuming process.

There are many do-it-yourself power of attorney forms available; however, it is a good idea to have an attorney draft the form for you. There are many issues to consider and one size does not fit all.

The agent’s powers

The power of attorney document sets out the agent’s powers. Powers given to an agent typically include buying or selling property, managing a business, paying debts, investing money, engaging in legal proceedings, borrowing money, cashing checks, and collecting debts. They may also include the power to consent to medical treatment. Some powers will not be included unless they are specifically mentioned. This includes the power to make gifts and the power to designate beneficiaries of your insurance policies.

The power to make gifts of your money and property is a particularly important power. If you want to ensure your agent has the authority to do Medicaid planning on your behalf in the event you need to enter a nursing home, then the power of attorney must give the agent the power to modify trusts and make gifts. The wording in a power of attorney can be significant, so it is necessary to consult an attorney.

Springing or immediate

The power of attorney can take affect immediately or it can become effective only once you are disabled, called a “springing” power of attorney. While a springing power seems like a good idea, it can cause delays and extra expense because incapacity will need to be determined. If the power of attorney is springing, it is very important that the method for determining incapacity is clearly spelled out in the document.

Joint agents

While it is possible to name more than one person as your agent, this can lead to confusion. If you do have more than one person named, you need to be clear whether both parties need to act together or whether they can each act independently. It might make more sense and be less confusing to name an alternative agent to act in case the first agent is unable to.

Appointing a guardian

Another use of a power of attorney can be to nominate a guardian in case guardianship proceedings become necessary. Including your preference for a guardian can allow you to have some say over who will be managing your affairs. Usually, the court decides who will be chosen as a guardian, but in most circumstances, the court will abide by your nomination in the durable power of attorney.

Executing the power of attorney

To be valid a power of attorney must be executed properly. Some states may require a signature, others may require the power of attorney to be notarized, and still others may require witnesses. It is important to consult with an estate planning attorney in your state to ensure your power of attorney is executed properly.

Accepting a power of attorney

Even if you do everything exactly right, some banks and other institutions are reluctant to accept a power of attorney. These institutions are afraid of a lawsuit if the power of attorney is no longer valid. Many banks or other financial institutions have their own standard power of attorney forms. To avoid problems, you may want to execute the forms offered by the institutions with which you have accounts. According to a MarketWatch.com article, you need to be careful that you don’t sign a bank’s document that inadvertently restricts a power of attorney’s ability to deal with other assets, and you should check that any documents you sign with a bank match the original power of attorney.

For more information on the subject, visit this section on our website.

Regards, Brian A. Raphan, PC