Questions asked & answered at yesterday’s “Estate Planning Essentials” workshop


  1. Can I protect assets for my heirs?
  2. How can I avoid court and family disputes?
  3. How can I set up a trust?
  4. Is it true that “probate” costs a lot? Should I avoid probate?
  5. If I have no children or trustworthy people in my life, who can I appoint as my agent or executor?
  6. What is Medicaid Planning?

Join us at our next workshop and have your questions answered! Click here to see upcoming dates.



A few seats left for special edition of our workshop

Sykes Elder Law Resource & Education Center

Sykes Elder Law Resource & Education Center

For January we are presenting a special “New Year’s resolution” edition of our popular, free estate planning workshop.

The first one filled up quickly, and there are only a few seats left for the remaining workshop on Thursday, January 29, from 5:30 to 7:30 in the evening.

In addition to our usual information-packed instruction on how to achieve great estate planning and asset protection results, we will offer insight into why we tend to procrastinate estate planning and other important tasks, how to break inertia and get tasks done, and how you can use a simple device like a New Year’s resolution to break any type of productivity logjam.

We will offer extra assistance in helping attendees wrestle with difficult issues that could be holding them back, and will give an extra push toward getting estate planning done (and done well).

Before Spring, attendees can have completed his planning documents resting on a shelf at home and enjoy the satisfaction of knowing they have completed a vital life task that will benefit them and their family in the years to come.

So call soon to reserve one of the remaining spots. If you have been putting off your estate planning, you will not want to miss the session.


POAs in 2015 require greater attention to asset protection

Asset protection has grown in importance as a consideration in estate planning. Americans live longer now than ever before, and often spend more time in their senior years having diminished ability to manage their own affairs, or even to take care of themselves.

As a result, their estates are vulnerable for a number of reasons. They may be more vulnerable to lawsuits if they can’t drive well or take care of their properties. The unscrupulous may take advantage of their trust. They may need expensive nursing care for years.

The use of trusts has risen as a way to protect assets from depletion and save them for loved ones.

But it may get harder to use trusts for this purpose starting in 2015 (at least in Pennsylvania).

Here’s why. An important feature of a good asset protection plan is the ability to change course and adapt to changing circumstances. For example, a couple aged 80 and 78 may establish an irrevocable asset protection trust when they are in good health, and place most of their assets into it. Three years later, though, the husband (George) has dementia and enters a nursing home. A better strategy at that point may be to terminate the trust and divide assets according to Medicaid rules, making sure that George’s wife can keep and use as much of their combined estate as possible if George qualifies for Medicaid.

However, there’s a problem. Because George prepared his POA in 2015, it is subject to the rules of interpretation under Pennsylvania’s new statute. One of those rules is that an agent acting under a POA may “create, amend, revoke or terminate” a trust “only if the power of attorney expressly grants the agent the authority” to do so.

Unless George, or his attorney, anticipated this issue and specifically included a provision in his POA to allow George’s agent to consent to termination of the trust now that George has dementia, the assets may be tied up in the trust. Worse yet, the transfer of assets to the trust can earn the couple a period of ineligibility for Medicaid benefits if it was within Medicaid’s five-year look-back period.

The problem is easily managed if, when George set up his trust, he also obtained a good power of attorney that gave his agent all the powers that might be needed if his circumstances changed, especially during the first five years of the trust’s existence.

On the other hand, form POAs obtained from a non-specialist, bought as part of general estate planning software, or downloaded from the internet may pose dangers for the unwary under the new POA statute.

Bottom line: Make sure your power of attorney contains the right provisions to support your asset protection strategy.

How will Pennsylvania’s new POA statute affect you?

sign-docAs we reported previously, Pennsylvania has adopted changes to its power of attorney law. Some changes have already gone into effect and others will take effect January 1, 2015.

Here are some thoughts on how the new law may affect you, depending on your situation.

You have a current POA
If the POA you have now meets your needs, there is no need to change it. The new forms, and the new rules about what powers may be authorized under a POA, apply only to POAs created on or after January 1, 2015. Existing POAs are grandfathered in, with their current powers intact.

You serve as the agent under a POA
If you are already someone’s agent under a POA, your duties have been changed and clarified somewhat. In most cases the new rules will make no difference to what you are doing.

However, if you have accounts that are not entirely separate from the accounts of the principal, you may need to change them. Under the new rules, your funds must be kept separate unless they “were not kept separate as of the date of the execution” of the POA, or “the principal commingles the funds after the date of the execution of the power of attorney and the agent is the principal’s spouse.”

You should already be keeping a record of all receipts, disbursements and transactions. Under the new rules, you are required by law to do so unless the POA provides otherwise.

You are presented with a POA
If you work at a bank, or other entity that is asked to take action by an agent under POA, you will need to become familiar with the new rules on honoring a POA. Within 7 business days, you must usually accept the POA or make certain requests for clarification as allowed by the statute. However, there are some circumstances under which you are not required to accept a POA (such as when you know for a fact that it has been terminated). You may not require an additional or different form of POA.

Entities that are regularly presented with POAs are well advised to train their employees on the new guidelines.

New PA power of attorney statute brings changes now, and in 2015

POA-imagesPennsylvania has adopted the most sweeping changes to its power of attorney statute since 1999. The new law, signed into law in July, made some changes that took effect immediately and others that will take effect January 1, 2015.

Changes effective now

For years, Pennsylvania law has encouraged the use and acceptance of powers of attorney. It does so by requiring any person who “is given instructions by an agent in accordance with the terms of a power of attorney” to follow those instructions or be subject to “civil liability for any damages resulting from noncompliance.” On the other hand, the law provides immunity to any person who acts in good faith reliance on such instructions.

Those concepts still apply, but the new law expands on each of them greatly and prescribes procedures that can be followed to verify the validity of a power of attorney. For example, a person offered a power of attorney must either accept it, or (within seven business days) request certain information such as an English translation, or an opinion of counsel as to “whether the agent is acting within the scope of the authority granted by the power of attorney.” Once the requested information has been presented, the person requesting it must then accept the power of attorney within five business days unless the information given “provides a substantial basis for making a further request.”

These procedures are new to Pennsylvania law, and it will no doubt take some time for banks, and other institutions who regularly receive requests from agents acting under powers of attorney, to learn the new rules. One new rule of particular significance is that a “person may not require an additional or different form of power of attorney for authority granted in the power of attorney presented.” Our clients have had legitimate requests for action denied because a company said “you have to use our power of attorney form.” That always struck us as contrary to the Pennsylvania statute. Now it clearly is.

Changes effective January 1

The most noticeable change effective on the first day of 2015 is the change in the power of attorney form itself.

For the past 15 years, the statute has required a “Notice” form that must precede every power of attorney, informing the person signing it (called the “principal”) that the POA gives “the person you designate (your “agent”) broad powers to handle your property, which may include powers to sell or otherwise dispose of any real or personal property without advance notice to you or approval by you.” The form also gives a brief explanation of the agent’s powers and duties. The principal must sign this form, acknowledging that he or she has read it (or had it explained) and understands it.

The new law still requires that form, but it must now contain additional language explaining more about the agent’s duties and informing signers that “the law permits you, if you choose, to grant broad authority to an agent under power of attorney, including the ability to give away all of your property while you are alive or to substantially change how your property is distributed at death.”

Similarly, the law has also required the POA agent to sign an “Agent Acknowledgement” form stating that the agent has read the POA and agrees to certain conduct when acting under it. The new law changes this form as well. It now reads that the agent agrees to “act in accordance with the principal’s reasonable expectations to the extent actually known by me and, otherwise, in the principal’s best interest, act in good faith and act only within the scope of authority granted to me by the principal in the power or attorney.”

These changes in the POA form reflect the new statute’s changes in the rules POA agents must follow and the rules under which POA signers can give authority to the agent. The new law identifies a number of specific powers that may only be given to a POA agent if they are given “expressly.” These powers include the power to:

• Give away money or property without receiving fair market value in return. • Create, amend, revoke, or terminate most kinds of trusts.

• Create or change a beneficiary designation.

• Create or change rights of survivorship.

• Disclaim property, including a power of appointment.

• Waive the principal’s right to be a beneficiary of a joint and survivor annuity, including a survivor benefit under a retirement plan.

• Delegate authority granted under the power of attorney.

• Exercise fiduciary powers that the principal has authority to delegate.

These are powers that probably have the greatest potential for abuse in the hands of an unscrupulous agent. The new law also adds significant new rules about the duties POA agents must follow. No matter what the POA says, an agent must now always:

• Act in accordance with the principal’s reasonable expectations to the extent actually known by the agent and, otherwise, in the principal’s best interests.

• Act in good faith.

• Act only within the scope of authority granted in the power of attorney.

Under the new rules, an agent has a list of duties that must be followed unless the POA provides differently. In other words, these duties may be waived in the POA. These include the duty to:

• Keep the agent’s funds separate from the principal’s funds (unless they were not kept separate before, or the principal mingles the funds later).

• Keep a record of all receipts, disbursements and transactions made on behalf of the principal.

• Attempt to preserve the principal’s estate plan, to the extent actually known by the agent, if preserving the plan is consistent with the principal’s best interest based on all relevant factors.

• Act with the care, competence and diligence ordinarily exercised by agents in similar circumstances.

An agent must disclose “receipts, disbursements or transactions conducted on behalf of the principal” when ordered by a court, or upon request by the principal; a government agency having authority to protect the welfare of the principal; or by a guardian, conservator, or “another fiduciary acting for the principal.” Upon death of the principal, the agent must disclose such information to the executor “or successor in interest of the principal’s estate.” If the agent follows the rules of the new law, an agent will not be liable if the principal’s property declines or if the principal’s estate plan is not preserved.

The essence of rules starting in 2015 is that a POA may give broad powers to give gifts of money and property, and make other substantial changes to the principal’s estate, but only if the POA gives those powers explicitly. Otherwise, the agent must refrain from making such changes and in any case must always act in accordance with the principal’s reasonable expectations and best interest.

The new statute contains a rule that will be enormously useful in the digital age: “a photocopy or electronically transmitted copy of an originally executed power of attorney has the same effect as the original” (except for the purpose of recording the power of attorney with a court or recorder of deeds).