From the Philadelphia Gay News

February 19. 2015

By Amy Steerman

Can we talk?

OK, Joan Rivers I’m not. But just as a kernel of raw truth rang out from a Joan poke, so too here. No joke: All you hold as important with your health, savings, home and family are at risk … unless you have the right legal provisions in place. Your legal plans protect you. They safeguard what you care about most.

Legal planning typically takes two paths. We are probably more accustomed to thinking about the eventuality of our passing. Yet we think less about what might happen throughout our lifetime, even though statistics show that many of us will face a disability or health issue along the way. Eyes wide open to both realities, it is clear that everyone needs a will, financial power of attorney, health-care power of attorney and advance directive. Other documents may be needed depending on circumstances. LGBT folks — single, partnered or married — should engage in all facets of planning.

Specifically, these “lifetime” documents, such as financial power of attorney, health-care power of attorney and advance directive, are critical in the event of sickness, disability or incapacity. They mean that today you get to decide what happens and who steps in for you. The advance directive is a “must have” in the event of a hospital stay. Moreover, without the financial and health-care powers of attorney, a limited or plenary guardian must be appointed to take personal and/or financial care. In other words, you are at risk of having a stranger appointed to make decisions for you.

You know the old joke about what none of us can escape?

Upon death, the will controls real and personal property, bank accounts, investment accounts and any asset that does not have a beneficiary designation. When planning a will, you will want to think about who, how and why you want to benefit a person or organization. In addition, there are also some other specifics to weigh. Any jointly held asset or payable-upon-death account or life-insurance policy or retirement account cannot be redirected in the will. In fact, these “non-probate” assets typically pass outside of the will to the designated beneficiary. This does not mean they escape Pennsylvania inheritance tax, only probate.

Yes, tax is the other inevitable. Good legal planning entails tax planning. For most people, the goal is minimizing tax treatment and at least easing the payment of tax. It is always important to look at who your beneficiaries are, what their relationship is to you and how any tax will be paid. For instance, inheritance tax is imposed at a rate of 15 percent for those who leave assets to a non-married partner or friend. Leaving assets to siblings is taxed at a 12-percent rate. Spousal transfers are taxed at a 0-percent rate. Transfers to children are taxed at a 4.5-percent rate.

What happens if you do not plan properly? Do a quick Google search and plenty of stories will pop up: partners cut out of medical decisions by the hospital or family, next of kin coming in and taking belongings from the house upon the passing of one’s partner, not respecting one’s desires for cremation or burial …

A good attorney will help make sure none of this happens to you. When working with a lawyer, be prepared to talk about these topics, among others:

1. Beneficiary designations: Who is named on any life-insurance policy and/or retirement plan?

2. Home ownership: Do you own your home in single name, as joint tenants with right of survivorship or tenants in common? It matters.

3. Inheritance tax: Who will pay any inheritance tax due?

4. Trusted people: Who do you trust to act as agents under a financial power of attorney and/or as executor of your will?

5. Will provisions: Who do you want to receive your bounty or who may need help upon your death? Are there charitable organizations you want to benefit?

You do not need to figure all this out alone. You only need to take the first step and say you are ready, then work with a good lawyer to make sure you are legally protected. That is the punch line.

On March 14, the LGBT Elder Initiative will host a free legal clinic for LGBT older adults at the William Way LGBT Community Center, 1315 Spruce St. At the clinic, attorneys will be available to help you complete the basic legal documents that you need to protect your wishes.

Amy F. Steerman is an attorney in private practice in Philadelphia and is co-chair of the development committee of the LGBT Elder Initiative. The LGBTEI, headquartered in Philadelphia, fosters and advocates for services, resources and institutions that are competent, culturally sensitive, inclusive and responsible to the needs of LGBT elders in the Delaware Valley and beyond. To comment on this article, suggest topics for future articles or for more information, please visit or call the LGBTEI at 215-720-9415 and watch for “Gettin’ On” each month.

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