Legal Matters: Estate Planning 101 and Common Questions

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By Jack Dooley and Bob Iannozzi Jr.

It is Estate Planning Awareness Month, do you have a plan in place? You may equate “estate” with mansions, large stock portfolios, and lavish possessions, and subsequently Estate Planning as something for the rich and famous or the very old. But that is a huge misconception. Regardless of financial status or age, everyone can benefit from having an estate plan.

Your estate is essentially everything you own, including your home, other property, car, bank accounts, investments, insurance policies, furniture, and personal belongings. An estate plan allows you to designate how those things are given to the people or organizations you care about. Simply put, estate planning is the process of organizing your affairs to ensure your surviving family members are taken care of when the time comes.

What is the significance of a Will, and why should I make one?

A will, also called a “last will and testament,” is a significant, yet simple tool that helps you protect your family and property. It is a written record of your wishes and intentions. It indicates how you want your financial assets, property, and belongings distributed — and who will care for your children if they are minors.

In Pennsylvania, if you die without a will, your property will be distributed according to the state’s “intestacy” laws — without any contemplation of your wishes. Specifically, Pennsylvania intestacy law gives your property to your closest relatives, beginning with your spouse and children. If you have neither a spouse nor children, your grandchildren or your parents will get your property. This list continues with increasingly distant relatives, including siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews. If the court exhausts this list to find that you have no living relatives by blood or marriage, the state will take your property.

Having a will ensures that the distribution of your property is specifically tailored to your wishes. You’ve worked too hard to allow your property to be generically distributed without any contemplation of your wishes.

My parents are aging, and I want to talk to them about their financial affairs. But bringing up the topic is uncomfortable. Is there an appropriate way to ask?

It is a very understandable and somewhat typical situation. However, some some parents welcome the conversation but have been equally hesitant to broach the topic with their children. But assuming that your parents are reluctant, understand that there is a significant difference between saying, “Mom and Dad, how much money do you have?” (cringe) and asking any of the following:

  1. Have you prepared wills? If so, where are the originals located?
  2. Do you have Powers of Attorney? This could be very important should one of you become very ill.
  3. How about Living Wills? Did you do those? Again, if so, where could I find one if the need arose?
  4. Do you have a list of your user names and passwords for anything online? Where could I find that information if I needed to?

All of the above information is very helpful should the need arise, and these questions can be asked without intruding into the details of your parent’s finances.

What doesDurable” mean in Durable Power of Attorney”?

A Power of Attorney is a document which enables you (“Principal”) to appoint another individual (“Agent”) to act on your behalf and in your interests in financial and health care matters. Powers of Attorney have been around as long as there have been lawyers, but the original concept sounds odd to us today.

The initial idea was that you signed a Power of Attorney and that every moment of every day until the power was revoked, the Principal has the continuous and knowing intention to keep that power in place. The problem with this concept was that should the Principal become incapacitated; the law indicated that the Power of Attorney was no longer effective – because the Principal no longer had the capacity to have the intention to keep the power in place. Many people are absolutely stunned when they hear this and regard it as counterintuitive because “isn’t that exactly why I want the Power of Attorney? — When I am unable to do things for myself.”

Due to this very reasonable thought, state governments responded by adopting statutes that recognized the legality of a durable Power of Attorney, meaning that the power would survive the Principal’s incapacity. Durable does not mean irrevocable, as any Power of Attorney can be revoked by the Principal. A Power of Attorney is durable if it simply contains the words that indicate that the power is to survive the incapacity.

Setting up a proper Will or Power of Attorney is not complicated, and you can get started as soon as you are ready. Think about what you own, your cherished belongings and seek counsel from an experienced attorney. For most individuals, there is no need to be overly concerned about death taxes or complicated trusts. Still, an attorney will work with you to create an appropriate estate plan customized to your needs, financial affairs, and family situation.

If you have an estate plan, but it’s been a while since you’ve reviewed it, remember that it is only comforting if you keep it current. It is essential to regularly review your plan — especially after significant life changes, like marriage, divorce, birth or adoption of a child, inheriting money, or even moving to another state where estate laws differ from the one where you drew up your current Will. Be sure to keep an eye on changes in tax laws or other financial legislation as well. If your estate plan is out-of-date, your loved ones could encounter some of the problems you worked so hard to avoid.

The Wills, Trusts, and Estates Team at Dischell Bartle Dooley can help you create or update your estate plan today. DBD combines intricate knowledge and experience with thoughtful and adept execution from tax planning and medical directives, to legal documentation, and probate administration.

You’ve provided for your loved ones your whole life. Now is the time to ensure your wishes are carried out as you intend. For more information, contact us online or call 215.362.2474.

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Jack Dooley represents individuals, municipalities, and businesses. He does extensive work in estate planning and administration providing his clients assurance that their wishes will be fulfilled and that their estates will pass on through generations.

Jack believes that the law goes far beyond technical legal matters. His goal is to make the law work for the people and companies he represents because results matter to Jack.

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Bob Iannozzi Jr. concentrates his practice in the areas of zoning/land development, municipal government, and wills and estates. Bob is a strong, protective advocate, with an attentive personal touch.

He represents municipalities, school districts, large and small commercial developers, residential property owners, and people who just need simple day-to-day legal assistance.

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