My special needs child is about to turn 18 – What should I do?

Children with special needs, who are under the age of 18, are considered minors in the state of New Jersey. Until then, parents have full authority to act on behalf of their child(ren) when it comes to making important decisions. But once the child turns 18, parents are often caught off guard when they discover that although the child continues to be dependent on his or her parents long after they turn 18, parents no longer have the same authority as before, as the children are now deemed adults under the eyes of the law. Financial, legal, and healthcare decisions can no longer be made as before, and in the unfortunate situation when one or both parents pass away, assets passing to the child as an inheritance could trigger adverse consequences if the child has been receiving critical government benefits.

So what can you do now to avoid a disaster from occurring?

As a first step, you will need to begin the process of a guardianship (typically, this should be started a few months before the child turns 18). This involves filing a Verified Complaint with the courts, requesting your (and your spouse, where applicable), appointment as legal guardian of your child.  While it is rare for a judge to deny guardianship to a parent, the formalities of the guardianship process still need to be adhered to. 

The application must include, among other things, certifications from two physicians (one of these could be made by a licensed psychologist). The court will then appoint an attorney to conduct an investigation of the interested parties and then prepare a report for the judge, either confirming or rejecting the appointment of the Petitioner. Finally, a hearing is conducted before the judge, so all relevant parties can appear and be heard in court. Once the judge approves the appointment, a final judgment containing the decision is circulated to all parties. 

At this time, the parent(s) will need to appear at the surrogate’s office to become qualified and collect their Letter of Appointment. Be prepared to incur some expenses associated with the filing fees and legal costs, especially if you choose to go with private attorneys for both the submission of your application (as opposed to going pro se) and for the court appointment. Depending on the situation, a court may also be able to appoint an attorney from the Public Defender’s office at no charge to the parents, but this could delay things a bit. A final judgment signed by the judge at the end of the proceeding will then grant you the right to procure Letters of Guardianship.

The next step is to consider whether or not you want to set up Special Needs Trusts (SNT) for your child. Here you have an option to set up (1) a first-party special needs trust and/or (2) a third-party supplemental needs trust as stand-alone trusts. These trusts can hold assets of your child’s or assets passing from you, respectively, without jeopardizing your child’s government benefits. These assets are meant to supplement, but not supplant, any other benefits so your child can have an enhanced quality of life without concern that the critical benefits provided by the government would be denied.  

Finally, you should definitely consider setting up or updating your own existing estate plan to ensure that all of your assets passing to your child upon death are protected by either having the assets pass into the stand alone SNT that you set up (see above paragraph), or have it pass into a SNT under your Will. It is  important to consult with the estate planning attorney as to which trust should hold the inheritance.  Inadvertently naming the wrong SNT could result in having the assets inside of the trust going to the estate, instead of the family or other heirs.  

Primer on Spousal Access Trusts – What you need to know about this important estate planning technique!

Very often we meet clients looking for a more nuanced estate planning with specific assets – they may want to (1) protect assets from creditors; or (2) they would like to minimize the estate tax liability upon death. For these clients, Irrevocable Trusts are a critical piece of advanced estate planning that can accomplish these goals. It is important to remember here that these trusts are set up in addition to (and not in lieu of) their foundational planning, which typically consists of Wills or Revocable Living Trusts, as well as the Financial or Healthcare Powers of Attorney.

Irrevocable Trusts come in many flavors – insurance trusts or ILITs, gifting trusts for children, residence trusts or QPRTs, and a whole lot more in between. These trusts can either be established locally (i.e. situs of the trust is New Jersey), or a NJ resident can situs his or her trust in other U.S. states with favorable Domestic Asset Protection Trust laws (also called DAPT states).

This post discusses the popular Spousal Access Trusts or SLATs, where the spouse of the Grantor or Settlor of the trust is a named beneficiary, while the trust continues to accomplish its primary objectives regarding creditor protection and estate tax savings. It is key to remember here that if the 2-SLAT approach is being utilized (one trust each for the husband and the wife), then utmost care must be taken by the drafter of these trusts to ensure the trusts are not identical to one another, which would run afoul of the reciprocal trust doctrine.

Consider the following when establishing these trusts in New Jersey:

  • Pros:
    • There is no need to get an outside Independent Trustee who is a resident – a trusted friend would be able to serve in this role.
    • There is no need for outside counsel review.
    • You can accomplish the current asset protection goals even with the spouse as a beneficiary, but the Grantor[1] of the trust cannot become a beneficiary of the trust if the two primary objectives of creditor protection and estate tax savings are desired.
  • Cons:
    • The Grantor cannot be (or be added back later) as a named beneficiary.
    • Death of a spouse-beneficiary can make things problematic for the Grantor, who will now no longer have access to the funds in the trust.
    • If the 2-SLAT approach is being used, then there is higher probability of IRS scrutiny if both trusts are sitused in NJ.

However, if we go outside the state of NJ to one of the DAPT states[2], these trusts become more sophisticated and robust, but are also expensive – not only for set up but also in annual costs. The following are some considerations:

  • Pros:
    • The Grantor can be added back as a beneficiary after the trust is set up.
    • There are greater asset protection laws in these DAPT states, so creditor challenges are much harder.
    • With the 2-SLAT approach, situsing these trusts in two different DAPT states ensures even greater asset protection.
    • Resident Trustees can be Directed Trustees where they are only acting upon the direction of another – this keeps costs down each year.
    • This approach has potential to avoid IRS/Creditor scrutiny, especially where an independent, objective third party is serving as a trustee.
  • Cons:
    • This route is more expensive, because these are sophisticated trusts part of advanced planning.
    • Co-counsel needs to be retained to get the trusts reviewed by attorneys in that state.
    • Resident Trustees are a requirement.
    • Although trustees may be “Directed Trustees,” depending on the DAPT state, annual fees may vary between states and could become quite costly.

To minimize costs, some alternate solutions include:

  1. Staying within NJ and set up both trusts within the state, but be willing to give up some of the added benefits of DAPTs.
  2. Creating one trust in a DAPT jurisdiction and another trust in NJ, so you can take advantage of the “pros” for at least one trust, where the Grantor can be named back as the beneficiary.

 

 

 

[1] Grantor refers to the individual setting up the trust and is often used interchangeably with the terms Trustor or Settlor.

[2] As of 2020, there are at least 19 states that are now considered to be DAPT states and which have amended their statues to offer strong creditor protection and favorable treatment towards Grantors’ irrevocable trusts. http://www.actec.org/assets/1/6/Shaftel-Comparison-of-the-Domestic-Asset-Protection-Trust-Statutes.pdf

Navigating Cultural Differences in Estate Planning

For those of you who don’t know, I am of South Asian descent. I grew up in Bangalore, India and came to the United States as a young adult in the 1980s. Growing up, I was surrounded by extended family members – my aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents were part of my everyday world. It wasn’t until I came to the United States that I discovered that the family structure I was accustomed to was not a familiar concept in the United States. Culturally, in India the family structure is very different from that of its US counterpart  – we treat our extended family as part of our nucleus. Although less common now,  the “joint family system” was the norm for many Indian families, and some households still function like this today. In the joint family system, the oldest son typically does not leave the family home.  Instead, after he gets married, his new wife joins her husband in the family home. Children are then raised in the family home, growing up alongside their cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. In fact, in Indian culture, cousins are referred to as “cousin-brother” and “cousin-sister”, which I think is an excellent illustration of how close extended family members are. I was surprised to discover this term was alien in the United States!

So why does all this matter in the context of estate planning? Because at the heart of estate planning is family, and the US legal system considers family much differently than India, especially  when it comes to estate, inheritance, or gift taxes. For example, in estate planning cases US law treats extended family differently than how it treats the immediate nuclear family. As a result, I am often confronted with a situation among my South-Asian clients where uncles and aunts, who treat their nieces and nephews as their own children, are bewildered that there is a separate taxation structure if they wanted to divide their estate equally among their children, nieces, and nephews.

There is also a culture clash when it comes to attorney-client privilege. For many South Asian families, it is presumed that sons or sons-in-law who become the head of the household (when the father or father-in-law passes away) can speak on behalf of their parents or in-laws when it comes to estate planning. This is compounded when not all members of the family speak English fluently.  Many South Asian immigrants (most commonly homemaker wives) who came to the US in the mid 20th century never really became fluent in the English language and must rely on their children to serve as interpreters for them.

However, according to N.J.S.A 2A: 84A-20 (3), a client is a someone who consults with a lawyer for the purpose of getting legal advice, and any communication that is made during this relationship is subject to attorney-client privilege.  The client expects that the attorney will act in the best interests of the client at all costs and will protect the client from any undue influence. The presence of some other person could nullify this privilege and could lead to disclosure in a court of law.  Most Will contests are due to the presence of a third person (a sibling, a friend etc.) in the room  who may be unduly influencing the client to set up a Will that may be contrary to his or her initial objectives.

Therefore, for US attorneys who are not familiar with the Indian family dynamics, there is confusion and misunderstanding when they represent their Indian clientele and discover that they are not just interacting with the individual or couple who signed the engagement agreement, but often their extended  family as well! The attorneys are (and rightfully so!) concerned that: (1) there may be ulterior motives behind the children asking to speak on behalf of the entire family; (2) there is no clear understanding on who is the client really is in this situation – especially if the person who is paying the attorney fee is the child; and (3) there is destruction of attorney-client privilege due to the presence of a third party (even though the third party is an adult child).

As a lawyer of South Asian descent, I have a unique advantage when working with Indian families to create an estate plan. I understand the nuances of Indian culture enough to parse through the various family dynamics to see if there are in fact any ulterior motives that may negatively impact my clients. I am also able to communicate with an elderly client in a few of the Indian languages to see if the clients really want their child or children to speak on their behalf for the remainder of the representation. Based off my experience, one way we can circumvent the  stringent rules for attorney-client privilege to account for  the cultural differences is to have clients execute broad powers of attorney that name their children and/or extended family as the authorized representatives of the clients to communicate on their behalf.  Although this may also be of concern should there be an abuse of this power, at least for the right family situation, this can  serve as a good simple option.

 

SSI and Spousal Impoverishment Standards for 2021

Every year the Social Security Administration publishes its list of Supplemental Security Income & Spousal Impoverishment Standards that are adjusted for inflation. These standards define the minimum and maximum amount of resources and income limits that an individual and/or their spouse can have in order to be on Medicaid. Here are the new numbers for 2021 (also available on the Medicaid Website):

 

Individual Limits

Income Cap Limit for an Individual: $2,382.00 per month

Resource Cap for an Individual: $2,000 per month (same as previous year)

 

Spousal Limits

Minimum Monthly Maintenance Needs Allowance (MMNA): $2,155.00

Maximum Monthly Maintenance Needs Allowance: $3,259.50

 

Community Spouse Resources:

Minimum Resource Standard: $26,076.00

Maximum Resource Standard: $130,380.00

 

Home Equity Limits:

Minimum: $603,000.00

Maximum: $906,000.00

 

The expense of nursing home care can devastate a family’s resources as expenses for a nursing home rise. Currently, a stay at a skilled nursing facility can easily cost $15,000 or more per month. It seems hard to fathom how a couple can survive on the above thresholds, especially if there is a “Community Spouse” (i.e. spouse living in the community). There are strict rules for the use of income of the spouse on Medicaid and an even stricter limit for resources. These rules are complex and hard to navigate. However, with the proper legal guidance and direction, you can help plan for your or your loved one’s nursing home care costs, or plan to receive home and community-based waiver services. Whether you or a loved one is looking to qualify for Medicaid or continue to remain eligible for Medicaid to supplement the cost of long-term care, Rao Legal Group is here to help! Contact us via our website at www.EstateElderPlanning.com or call our office at 609-372-2855 to see how we can help you!

Spousal Lifetime Access Trusts (SLATs)—How Can They Help?

Chocolate and flowers have been exchanged, dinner reservations have been made and fulfilled, and Valentine’s day has officially passed. However with the end of February approaching, there is more you can do for your spouse than buying gifts or sharing a romantic evening. Although it’s far from a traditional Valentine’s gift, a well-written and up-to-date estate plan is one of the most important ways you can protect your loved ones. There are many estate planning strategies available to help you meet your personal goals, whatever they may be. In the spirit of the time of year, a nice gift exchange between clients and their spouses is a Spousal Lifetime Access Trust (SLAT).

 

So, what is a SLAT? A SLAT is a type of irrevocable trust (that is, a trust that cannot be modified without the permission of the trustees/beneficiaries once it is created) where one of the beneficiaries is the spouse of the creator/grantor. Because they cannot be amended, irrevocable trusts result in some loss of control and flexibility regarding the assets contained within them. However, in exchange, they provide tax savings and asset protection from creditors. A SLAT is a type of irrevocable trust set up by one spouse for the benefit of the other, and it can be a valuable estate planning tool for the right client.

Pros:

  • • Allows the grantor access to trust assets through his or her spouse;
  • • Allows the grantor to be responsible for the income taxes on the interest earned by the assets growing within the trust, thereby avoiding the compressed trust tax structure;
  • • Offers creditor protection to the beneficiaries as assets in the irrevocable trust are outside of the reach of the beneficiaries’ creditors;
  • • Offers protection from children’s potential divorcing spouses;
  • • Drafted properly, assets can bypass the estates of the grantor, the spouse, and the ultimate beneficiaries of the grantor;
  • • Compared to costs associated with defending lawsuits brought by creditors, these trusts are relatively inexpensive to set up;
  • • May avoid state income taxes (if properly set up in specific jurisdictions); and
  • • Use of trust protectors within the trust can provide flexibility to otherwise irrevocable trusts

Cons:

  • • Expensive, especially if established in Asset Protection Trust (APT) jurisdictions
  • • If the spouse passes away, access to trust assets may pass outside the reach of the grantor’s indirect access as the ultimate beneficiaries will now have full control over trust assets; and
  • • Depending on the jurisdiction and when and how the trust is set-up, these trusts may not protect against a subsequent divorce of the grantor

 

SLATs work best for couples with stable marriages, with significant assets, or with asset protection concerns for both themselves and their loved ones and who have no hint or threat of a potential lawsuit or claim either presently or in the imminent future. For those clients, SLATs present a valuable tool to protect the couple’s estates from creditors as well as increase tax efficiency. Additionally SLATs can protect the ultimate beneficiaries (typically the grantor’s children) from their own creditors. With SLATs, as with any other estate planning strategy, the benefits can be lost if they are not drafted by a knowledgeable and specialized estate planning attorney. If you want to find out whether SLATs can help you in achieving your estate planning goals, don’t wait—call us and schedule a time to speak with us today.

We launched a new program!

How this program may help ensure your estate plan will never let you & your family down at the critical moment

 

We hear it all the time when talking about estate plans—“I already have an estate plan in place, so I don’t have to worry.” But there are a few major things people don’t realize about estate planning that can put them at risk of not being prepared when the time comes. Plans need to be constantly updated, monitored and maintained on an ongoing basis. What was set up many years ago may not necessarily be current today. Asset changes, law updates and family changes can cause a well designed plan to fail when the time comes to “test” the plan much later.

 

If your plan includes Revocable Living Trusts (“RLT”) that were established to avoid probate, then were the trusts fully funded (i.e. were the relevant accounts titled to the name of the trust)? If you had planned for your beneficiaries to inherit in trust upon your (or your spouse’s) death, were beneficiary designation forms updated to make the trust(s) a beneficiary? We advised you during your signing that your asset spreadsheet should be updated by you every year, but do you understand when the documents themselves must be changed by the law firm? To ensure the documents work properly, you will need to keep in mind the changes in the law, purchases of new assets, changes in family structure such as marriage or divorce, births or deaths, relocations of your fiduciaries, and more. If you met with your attorney to draft and sign documents, received a nice looking binder filled with those vital documents, but then put it away in a safe place never to be thought of again during your lifetime, you may be at risk that your documents won’t accomplish what was originally intended. Failing to address critical life or asset changes by updating your new documents will jeopardize the entire plan you put in place. The number one reason estate plans fail is because they are out of date.1

 

Many good estate planning attorneys are concerned about how to ensure clients’ objectives are fulfilled and how to address ongoing updates long after the representation with the client has ended—we’ve joined an exclusive group of firms who have come up with an answer! We understand that your estate plan isn’t completed when you sign your documents and leave our office; rather, your estate plan is completed when your heirs are able to carry out your wishes set forth in the documents after you are gone. Therefore, we, as your estate planners, need to be available to you on an ongoing basis and remain involved throughout your lifetime to ensure that we maintain the integrity of your plan. This is why we are offering our Annual Membership Program (or AMP) to continue to take on the responsibility of monitoring and tailoring the plans that we have set up for you for the duration of your lifetime.

 

So if you are an existing client of ours and you created an estate plan with us, consider calling us so we can explain the benefits of AMP and how it can ensure that your plan still functions the way you intended. Additionally, please join us at our office on February 6th, 2020 at 6:00 pm for an AMP workshop where you can get more details of this program and find out how it can help you achieve peace of mind for you and your loved ones. But if you haven’t created your estate plan as yet—we hope you will choose us as your estate planning firm, as we will not only prepare superior quality documents but also stand behind our plans long after they are first created.

 

1. Bonazzoli, V. E. (2017). How an ordinary lawyer creates and sustains an extraordinary client care program. Parker, CO: Outskirts Press.

How Remote Are Remote Contingency Provisions?

As an estate planning attorney, it is my job to talk about death and taxes in a very matter of fact manner.  When I sit down with my clients to design their documents, I try to take emotions out of the conference room as we go through what should happens at first death or second death.  When we come to the final part of the Will design, I ask – “In the unlikely event that all of you (you, your spouse, your kids, your grandkids) are not around to take their share, who would you want your assets to go to?” – and I get this uncomfortable laugh and oftentimes responses like “Wow, I did not think about that!” or “Whoa, that is crazy – who thinks that far?” or at times “C’mon, that is never going to happen so do you really need me to answer that?”…but I still go through the motions until they come up with an answer and once the documents are signed, this is likely to go into distant memory hoping that it will never be addressed…ever!

 

So when I heard about the Indian family of 4 (Thottapilly family ages 41, 38, 12 & 9)¹ who went missing on April 5, 2018 in Northern California while on a road trip and their bodies were later found submerged in the river into which their SUV crashed, all I could think of is that this remote provision was not that remote after all!

 

It could have been any family, this could have been any happy vacation – all it takes is a set of unfortunate conditions -Mother Nature at her worst or a terrorist act or human error.  Whatever the case may be, it goes back to the sad truth that nothing is certain except for death and taxes…and its not “if” but “when.”  Perhaps at this point we may not really care what happens to our assets if those closest and precious to us are gone but, by putting in place a contingency plan for both predictable and unpredictable events, you at the very least ensuring that your assets don’t pass to those you who dont want them going to and this may very likely happen if you leave behind no Will and your assets pass through the laws of intestacy.

Consult with an estate planning attorney today and make sure that your overall objectives for your assets, whether remote or not so remote, are fulfilled!

 


¹https://www.cbsnews.com/news/missing-thottapilly-family-personal-items-found-mendocino-california/