Incapacity Documents in Other States

As winter approaches, I’ve been asked by clients who are going to warmer climates whether they should have additional incapacity documents drafted in the state where they will stay most of the winter. The first thing I tell them is to make sure their Massachusetts incapacity documents are current. They may want to change their health care proxy or perhaps the contact information for people listed in those documents has changed.

Once we address the Massachusetts documents and make sure they are current and properly executed, then I talk about the issue of other jurisdictions. If you are just going to another state for a few days or a few weeks, then chances are you do not need to have any additional documents drafted for that state. Generally speaking, another state will honor your documents if you are on a trip and have an accident. There are exceptions, and I discuss those with my clients when they tell me the exact state or states they are visiting. Remember that if you are traveling, you should have a current copy of the Emergency Contact Card behind your license in your wallet.

What happens if you are actually living in another state for months? Attorneys differ on whether or not you should have a second set of documents. The disagreement stems from the fact that if both sets of documents do not comply with both state requirements, then only the ones with the most current date will be followed. The reason the most currently-dated documents will be followed is because there is an assumption that those documents reflect your current wishes and take precedent over the older documents. That may not be the case at all, but that is what will be presumed about the documents. There are several ways to rectify this potential problem. One way is to make sure that both sets of documents follow the execution requirements of both states. For example, Massachusetts requires two witnesses and a notary for most incapacity documents. If the state you are visiting requires three, then it’s easy enough to execute your Massachusetts documents with three, instead of two, witnesses. If you can’t fulfill both states’ requirements or if a state is silent about its requirements, then another possible way to address this issue is to include a notarized letter with your documents, stating that both documents reflect your current wishes, even though their dates may be different.

If you want to find out the best course of action for the state you are visiting, contact me today. Because I am entirely virtual, I can meet with you via phone, email, or Skype/Zoom, even if you have already gone on your travels.

Contesting a Will

massachusetts attorney poa power of attorney health care proxy advance directive living will conservatorship guardianshipI often get asked why I favor a trust over a will when drafting estate plans. Sometimes a will works well for someone, particularly if the estate is very small and simple. One of the big reasons I don’t favor wills is that they are easier to challenge in court than a trust. Challenging or contesting a will can just add more chaos and pain to an already difficult time when someone dies.

A will, unlike a trust, has to go through probate. That means the will is filed in the court and becomes a part of the public record. Anyone can see what assets you had and which ones you left to certain people and organizations. Unfortunately, death can bring out the worst in people. Individuals who you would never think would fight or care about possessions suddenly can become very difficult.

There are several ways a person can challenge your will. He might claim that you were under the undue influence of someone when you drafted your will and that the will does not actually represent your wishes. She might claim that your will was not executed correctly, in accordance with Massachusetts law. He might claim that you didn’t have capacity when you drafted and executed your will, which means you weren’t of “sound mind and body,” due to mental illness or medication. She might claim that there was fraud, such as your signature was forged.

There are certainly situations where these claims may be valid and need to be raised. But when it is a challenge simply brought by someone who is left out of the will or who is angry he or she didn’t inherit something he or she wanted, then it’s an unnecessary delay at an already difficult time.

What happens when you contest a trust? I will discuss that legal question in a future blog post so keep checking back or follow Windhorse Legal on Facebook to see when I post it.

If you have more questions concerning the contesting of wills or want to talk to me about drafting a will or trust, contact me today.

Will vs. Living Will

When I talk to my clients, they often ask if they will get a living will with their documents and how a living will is different from, well, a plain, old regular will. They are actually very different documents.

A will is a legal document that allows you to leave property to certain individuals and organizations when you die. It lists a representative who will oversee the process and make sure your wishes are followed. A will must go through probate, which means it must be submitted to a court for approval. The probate process can take at least 9 months and sometimes years. It is generally a public process so anyone can see what possessions you have left to whom. A will can also be challenged – meaning someone is arguing that it should not be enforced for various reasons – extending the probate process even longer.

A living will is an incapacity document. In Massachusetts, we don’t actually use the term “living will,” which is probably a good thing since it causes so much confusion. We call it an advance directive. It instructs medical personnel about the types of end of life care you want to have and don’t want to have. Interestingly, an advance directive is not legally binding in Massachusetts, unlike the situation in many other states. Why should you have an advance directive if it is not legally enforceable? An advance directive provides end-of-life instructions for your medical personnel as well as your health care proxy, so it is actually a vitally important part of your incapacity documents. Most medical personnel will follow the directions in a properly drafted and executed advance directive. In addition, your health care proxy will undoubtedly be distraught if you are incapacitated to the point of needing end-of-life care. An advance directive takes the pressure off of your proxy having to decide themselves what procedures you want or don’t want at that time.

If you have more questions about wills vs. living wills, aka advance directives, or if you need either or both drafted or updated, please contact me today.

Updating Your Estate Plan

As a part of the estate planning I do for my clients, I contact them each year to see if they need to make any updates or changes to their plan. You may think that once you get your estate plan drafted that you can make some changes just by handwriting in the changes and adding your signature to the change. Not so fast!

There are specific procedures that have to be followed when you execute the documents in your estate plan. According to Massachusetts law, you need a certain number of witnesses and those witnesses must meet certain requirements. You must also have documents notarized. If you do not meet these requirements, then your will, trust, or incapacity documents could be considered invalid after you become incapacitated or die. All that hard work and money that you put into getting your documents drafted correctly by an attorney will be wasted. Even more importantly, you may not receive the care you wanted, and your beneficiaries may not receive the inheritance you left them.

In addition, making a change to your estate plan without having your estate planning attorney do it may have other ramifications. You may put in a term or make a change that is not recognized by Massachusetts. For example, an Irrevocable Medicaid Trust must have certain language in it or it may be successfully challenged by Medicaid, causing you to potentially lose your home to pay for nursing care costs. An estate planning attorney stays current on any state law that may effect estate plans. This allows her to draft documents that meet your needs and are legally binding.

If you haven’t updated your estate plan in the last year or longer, contact me so we can see if you want any changes made, and I can make sure they are done correctly.

Animal Trusts

Recently, I have seen posts on Facebook horse groups that ask if people have plans for the care of their horse if they are incapacitated or die. Many people say they have talked to a friend or they have written some informal agreement. Unfortunately, neither or those options are ones that will hold up if the person decides not to take care of the horse.  Luckily, there is a legal vehicle that allows you to plan for your horse’s future in the event you are incapacitated or die. That document is called an animal trust, and you can have one for every animal in your family, not just your horse. Currently, every state and the District of Columbia had some form of legislation that allows for animal trusts. While an animal trust is a stand-alone document so it doesn’t need to be included in your estate plan, it is a good idea to let your estate planning attorney know that you have or want one.

Animals as Property Under the Law

Under the current law in every state, animals are considered property. This means someone literally cannot legally step in and take care of your animal if anything happens to you because they do not own your animal. For example, if you are in a coma and your riding buddy decides to move your horse to a less expensive boarding barn during that time so she can take over board payments for you, she could be charged with theft, no matter how good her intentions. She also could not access your checking account to make the regular monthly board payments she knows you would want to make to keep your horse where it’s currently boarded. She would literally be helpless to intervene if the barn owner decided he had to file legal papers to seize your horse and then sell it to pay for unpaid boarding costs if several months went by while you were incapacitated and unable to take care of things. We all would hope that a boarding barn owner would understand but sometimes finances take first priority, especially when it’s a business that relies on that income.

Animal Trusts

The way around this problem is to create an animal trust. The trust becomes active if you are incapacitated or when you die. Once you are no longer incapacitated, it is no longer active and returns control to you to handle matters concerning your animal.

An animal trust gives you the ability to provide funds for your animal’s care and to include specific instructions concerning that care. When you set up the trust, you set aside enough money in it to take care of your horse in the manner you prefer. How much money should you put into the trust? It depends on how long you want it to last. Write down a monthly budget that shows how much it costs to take care of your animal. Then decide how many months you want to provide care. For example, you may want to provide care for six months and then have a provision that if you have not regained capacity by then, you want your animal sold to someone or given to a specific person. If you want your animal taken care of after your death, you could put in enough money to care for him for several years. Make sure that the amount is reasonable, though. While animal trusts are generally not challenged in court, an argument could be made to reduce the amount you have left for care if one of your relatives or someone you left an inheritance to claim that the amount to care for your animal was excessive. Keep in mind that you can add money to the trust. So start with what you can afford and add more if that works best for your budget.

An animal trust also allows you to name a trustee, which is the person who will take care of your animal if something happens to you. You can be as specific or general as you want concerning that care. You can leave it up to the trustee, or you can put in specific provisions you want the trustee to follow. For instance, you can include directions concerning where your horse is stabled, how she should be fed, and additional instructions about the farrier and vet visits. You can even stipulate specific things such as how you want your horse to be blanketed and special treats she should get fed. It’s always a good idea to talk to the person you want to name as trustee before you set up the trust, to make sure she can take on that responsibility and is comfortable following your directions for your animal’s care. Depending on your state, there may be other people included in the trust, such as a vet who makes sure the animal is being taken care of properly.

When you decide you’re ready to create an animal trust, contact an animal or equine lawyer in your state so you can be sure the state’s legal requirements for the trust are met. If you are a Massachusetts resident, please feel free to contact me to discuss one. Be sure to revisit the trust every year to make sure the funds you’ve set aside are still adequate and to make sure you don’t want to change any of the instructions for your animal’s care. Then enjoy the peace of mind knowing your animal will be taken care of if anything unexpected ever happens to you.

This blog post is for educational purposes only.  It does not create an attorney-client relationship.  Seek an attorney’s advice for your specific situation.