Saturday, September 17, 2016

When Beneficiary Designations and Powers of Attorney Don't Play Well Together

When a person dies, property passes to the heirs in one of three ways. The first way is through joint ownership with a right of survivorship. This most often happens when real property is owned by husband wife. The second way is by beneficiary designations. Beneficiary designations control life insurance, most annuities and most individual retirement plans. The third way is the will of the decedent. Anything that doesn't pass to heirs through joint ownership or beneficiary designation, passes according to the terms of the will (or probate-avoidance trust). In a coherent estate plan, all three ways work together to carry out the wishes of the deceased.

More and more, I see people putting beneficiary designations at the center of their estate plan. In these estate plans, all the major assets pass through survivorship or beneficiary designations. Some people like the simplicity of it. Others are encouraged by bankers or brokers to use beneficiary designations because it "avoids probate".

Most people, in addition to an estate plan, have a power of attorney. The power of attorney is a document that anticipates disability rather than death, and a power of attorney becomes scrap paper the moment the person who created it dies. Death and disability are closely related, however, and people tend to plan for them both at the same time.

Powers of attorney and beneficiary designations do not always play well together.

A beneficiary designation is designed to determine who gets your money when you die. A power of attorney is designed to allow an agent to help you with money management while you are alive. The power of attorney I write for my clients does not allow the agent to change beneficiary designations. My reasoning is twofold: (1) I have a hard time seeing how a change in who gets money when you die protects you while you are alive; and (2) changing beneficiary designations by use of a power of attorney invites litigation.

Not everybody agrees with me about using a power of attorney to change beneficiary designations. I got a call one day from a brokerage who had used my opinion on the issue, as expressed somewhere in this blog, as reason not to allow a change in beneficiary designation by the agent named in a power of attorney. My opinion, however, is more of a good idea than a statement of law and that case proceeded to litigation.

When an estate plan is relying heavily on beneficiary designation, an agent under a power of attorney can significantly change the plan without changing the beneficiary designation.

It works like this. Uncle Scrooge has his money with the Imprudential Fund and a personal investment advisor is managing the money by investing it in the investments that bring the advisor the largest commissions. The beneficiary designation on file at the Imprudential Fund names Scrooge's favorite nephew, Huey, to receive the money when he dies. Louie is named as Scrooge's agent in a power of attorney, and Uncle Scrooge's will leaves everything to Huey, Louie, and Dewey in equal shares.

Louie doesn't like seeing Uncle pay all those broker commissions, so when Uncle becomes incapacitated, Louie moves the money in the Imprudential Fund to the Walletguard Fund, a broadly based index fund. No beneficiary designation is made for the Walletguard fund. This means that at Uncle's death the money will pass by will to all three nephews.

When Scrooge dies, Huey, Uncle’s favorite, sues Louie for changing the investment subject to beneficiary designation to one that was not subject to the same designation. Louie defends with the fact that he was only doing what was best for Uncle Scrooge while he was alive, and the benefit to  Louie and Dewey was incidental to protecting Scrooge.  

This problem can arise in a variety of fact patterns. What if, instead of moving Scrooge's accounts, Louie has simply paid for all of Scrooge's long term care needs from that account (rather than from other accounts) so that when Scrooge died, there was nothing left. Could Louie still be sued because he did not pay the long term care costs from Scrooge's assets in approximate proportion to the heirs expectancy interest in the eventual estate? It can get complicated.

We often say in the law biz, that the agent steps into the shoes of the principal, and can do whatever principal could do. Uncle Scrooge certainly could have moved his accounts or paid all of his long term care from a single account without regard to how it affected any of his nephews. So why can't his agent do the same? Well, because the agent risks being sued and losing. It seems that the agent cannot safely change the principal's estate plan nor be indifferent to it.

The question for the litigation-averse agent in a power of attorney is whether he must refrain from moving an account subject to a beneficiary designation, even it is in the principal's best interest while he is alive. And if he does, can he put a similar beneficiary designation on the new account without getting in trouble with the people who take under the will. Can he combine two accounts if they have different beneficiaries. Must he consider the expectancy interest of the beneficiaries when paying care costs or paying for a trip for old Scrooge to Disneyland. These are all unresolved questions and resolving them -- through litigation -- is going to be expensive for somebody.

I have changed my own power of attorney to authorize my agent to engage in transactions without regard to the effect it may have on those who are in line to receive my money when I am dead. This clause, combined with a prohibition on changing any beneficiary designations I have, seems to honor my estate plan while encouraging my agent to think more about my well being than that of the people who will benefit from my death.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Why Oregon conservators should be using fee-only financial advisers.

I have gotten some pushback from professional fiduciaries about my advocacy of index funds when investing money belonging to the disabled. The complaint is that the professional fiduciaries have too much to do already. They can't be expected to understand the intricacies of investment, diversification, risk, and the prudent investor rule. Thus, they should be allowed to contract out that aspect of the job to experts.

It is a good point, but not a great point. I don't think the job is that difficult these days if one was a rudimentary understanding of money and math, but I am a nerd and it may be unfair to expect others to share my interests.

However, professional fiduciaries who hire financial advisers to help manage the money of the disabled are required each year to disclose the amount paid to these advisers. No professional fiduciary wants to have that disclosure be an embarrassment.

Disclosing how much is paid to most commission-based financial adviser is not easy. The fee is not listed anywhere in those thick quarterly statements that many brokerages send their clients. In dealing with one national brokerage I have had to write a separate form for the agent to fill in  the amount of his firm's fees. I was always shocked by how high it was.

I think the solution to both the disclosure problem and the excessive fee problem lies in Oregon conservators hiring "fee only" financial advisers who charge either by the hour or the project. (Avoid paying a percentage of the assets managed unless this works out to rate under $200 per hour). These guys and gals get paid directly by the person who is hiring them. The money comes from the client, not from the manager of the product they recommend. They are not influenced by the commission associated with the product because there is no commission. Because the fiduciary will be writing the check for the fee, it will be easy to make that disclosure at the end of the year. And in most cases, the fee itself is going to be lower than the fee paid to commissioned agents.

Fee only financial advisers often advertise at the Fee Only Network website. Portland fee only advisers can be found here.
By selecting a fee only adviser, Oregon conservators can assure that their clients investments are not being skewered by the commission associated with the investment and that they will have a comprehensible statement of fees to present to the court.

Now, I happen to think that a fee only adviser will often suggest the safety and predictability of index funds for disabled clients. If, however, I am wrong and the independent adviser suggests a fund with a three percent cost ratio, at the very least the conservator has the safety of being able to tell the court that the investment advice was not influenced the commission the adviser got from the sale.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Using Index Funds to Save Costs: Some Suggestions for Oregon Conservators

If you are an Oregon court appointed fiduciary the writing is on the wall. The days of hiring stock brokers to manage money for the disabled are coming to an end. The Department of Labor has proposed a fiduciary standard for investment advisors dealing with retirement funds. Elizabeth Warren is tweeting, and a new law in Oregon requires court appointed conservators to disclose every year the full fees paid for asset managment. Paying full-service commissioned financial advisors from the funds of the helpless may not yet be unethical, but the day is not far off when it will be.

Index funds--funds invested across a market and managed by a computer--have the potential to do to retail stock brokers what the internet did to travel agencies. The only question for an Oregon fiduciary is whether she will dive into index funds or be dragged in. This post if for those who would rather make the move voluntarily.

(For my post on index funds and conservatorships generally, go here.)

An Oregon trustee or conservator is bound by the Prudent Investor Rule. The rule is common sense. It requires the fiduciary to match the risk in the investment to the risk tolerance of the beneficiary and potential heirs. At its very basic this means diversification. Mutual funds by their nature are diversified and an investment account containing different kinds of mutual funds is doubly so. Index funds are a type of mutual fund in which the money is invested across a market and managed by a computer instead of individuals. The management fees for index funds are smaller than those charged by actively managed funds. The biggest vendor of index funds is Vanguard. I will use the company in this post, but index funds from other vendors work equally well.

Let's say a conservator has an eighty-six year old disabled male with care costs of $2,000 a month more than his monthly income. He has $150,000 to manage, and a life expectancy of 5.7 years. If he dies on schedule he will need nearly every penny he has to pay care costs and related expenses. He has little if any tolerance for risk.

So Google a conservative index investment at Vanguard. Let's say you like the Wellesley Income Fund. It is safe and diversified (mostly bonds, some stocks). It tends to produce 2.62%, and the charge for management is 0.23% of the principal.  On $150,000 that is $3,930 a year of income for $345 in fees. Even more conservative is the Vanguard Intermediate-Term Government Bond Index which collects government bonds. It has an estimated return of 1.33% and an expense of .1%. The income it $1,843 on expenses of $151. (You can check these at the FINRA Fund Analyzer).

Of course a fiduciary could park the money in a Wells Fargo Money Market account at .03% and make a whopping $45.  Or the fiduciary could send the money to Fidelity Advisor Asset Manager® 20% Fund Class A (FTAWX), a randomly chosen managed fund with a ten year history of return at 3.8% and a front end load. The fiduciary would have fees and sales charges of $6,484 for a first year loss of $1,006. You can go to the FINRA site and do the math.

Even with no-load funds, the costs of management don't pan out. A Thrivent Conservative Asset Allocation Fund (TCAIX) with no load and a return of 3% has charges of $1062 (.7%) while the Vanguard Wellesley fund has Charges of $395 (.23%). Over the short life of our example, that is a $5,000 difference, just from management costs. Thrivent advertises on television that its funds are not managed by robots. I wonder if they also manually add up large numbers because they just can't trust those new fangled calculators.

The investment choices, even in mutual funds, are daunting, and can scare a fiduciary into simply paying the freight and having a commissioned money manager make the choices for him. The person who suffers from this timidity, however, it the disabled beneficiary. The professional management comes at such a hefty cost that it wipes out the benefit of the expertise.  Additionally, there are online tools at Vanguard and other places that make the process fairly easy. Simply plug in the factors that contribute to risk tolerance and let the computers do the work. If you want online help with selecting index funds you can look at Betterment or Wealthfront, although neither are really necessary.

Another hurdle to using index funds is having to actually open an account without a hand-holding and socially skilled financial adviser to do it for you. For a Vanguard account, the process starts with this form. The form is largely self explanatory, but I can offer these tips.
  • On page one, check the box indicating that the application is by a guardian.
  • On page 4 enter the information for the protected person using the address of the conservator.
  • On page 5 enter the information for the conservator. You do have to enter the conservator's tax ID number. This is for identification only and transactions will not affect the personal finances of the conservator.
  • When sending the paperwork include a certified copy of the letters of conservatorship that are less than 90 days old and a  letter explaining that Oregon courts (like California and other states) do not use a raised seal.
The form has areas to fill in the index funds you want to buy and instructions for funding the account from an existing bank account. This will probably be the conservatorship account.

If the protected person's money is already at with a commissioned adviser and invested heavily in managed funds, you may be able to get the broker to sell and reinvest in index funds. If the broker balks at this, as she probably will, you can move the securities from the existing broker to a Vanguard brokerage using this form. Once the form is filled out, your signature must be guaranteed with a Medallion Stamp. I have written about Medallion Stamps here. Once moved, it is a simple matter to sell the managed funds and replace them with appropriate index funds using the Vanguard web page.

Index funds chosen after consideration of the risk tolerance of the protected person (almost always very low) provide as close to a safe haven for a conservator as one could find. The investments are diversified because they are mutual funds. Unless the conservator made a huge mistake in evaluating risk tolerance, the investments will easily meet the requirements of the prudent investor rule. The protected person is protected and the professional conservator who has to report all management fees will not have to wince when he or she reports to the court how much of the protected person's money went to the brokerage house.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

A Guide to Medallion Guarantees for Transfers of Stock by Oregon Conservators and Executors

Oregon fiduciaries--conservators and executors, and even agents under a power of attorney--often have stocks that must be sold to pay the needs of a protected person or to close an estate. When trying to sell or transfer stock the fiduciary will be faced with having to get a Medallion stamp on the form that requests the stock transfer. This post is my attempt to explain what is going on with stock transfers and Medallion Guarantees.

Let's assume that the protected person or decedent owned stock in Big Farma, Inc. Big Farma is too busy with its big farms to keep track of the millions of people who hold its stock so it has hired a transfer agent to keep track of them. The transfer agent issues and cancels stock certificates to reflect changes in ownership. The transfer agent may also pay out dividends, handle lost certificates, and do other things related to helping stockholders maintain their accounts. Most transfer agents are also banks, brokerages, or trust companies.

Transfer agents are are allowed to (and generally do) demand a guarantee that a person requesting a change of ownership has the authority to do so. Signature guarantees are covered by the Uniform Commercial Code. (UCC 8-306 if you want to read it) When a bank for other financial institution guarantees a signature on an instruction to transfer stock the bank making the guarantee is guaranteeing that (1) the signature is genuine; (2) the person making the signature has the authority to issue the instruction; and (3) the person has capacity to sign. If the bank making the guarantee is wrong about one of these things, and the transfer agent suffers a loss because of it, the bank that made the guarantee is liable for the loss.

(A notary, on the other hand, certifies only that the signer signed the document voluntarily, signed the document in the presence of the notary and provided proof of identity.  There is no agreement to pay damages to anyone who relies on the notary stamp.)

Banks guarantee signatures to the satisfaction of transfer agents by associating with the Securities Transfer Agents Medallion Program, Inc., (STAMP, Inc) a not-for-profit corporation. STAMP, Inc. uses a company called Kenmark Financial Services to administer the Medallion Guarantee program. The bank or brokerage house that wants to issue Medallion Guarantees must meet certain financial standards and purchase a bond to cover liability for any mistakes. The amount of the bond determines the liability limit of the bank, and banks will not guarantee a signature if the transaction has a value that exceeds the amount of its bond.

Once the bank has qualified to make Medallion Guarantees it can offer the guarantees as a service to its customers. It is not required to provide the service and you cannot force a bank to do so. Therefore, the first step for an Oregon conservator or personal representative in search of a Medallion Guarantee is to find a friendly banker. Most banks limit the service to their customers.

Of the three things that a Medallion Guarantee guarantees, the first two are easy. The bank must guarantee that the signature is not a forgery. Personally appearing with good identification usually covers this hurdle. The second it that the signer has the capacity to sign. This means that the signer is over eighteen years of age and is not obviously crazy or demented. This, again, is seldom difficult.

The third element of the guarantee is that the signer is the appropriate person to sign the transfer instruction. When the signer is a fiduciary--a conservator, personal representative, or an agent pursuant to a power of attorney--the signer must prove his or her authority to engage in the proposed transaction.

For a personal representative or conservator, proof of authority is normally in the form of certified copies of the letters testamentary or letters of conservatorship. Many banks will require that the letters be less than sixty days old. If the conservator has old letters, she might consider getting a new set prior to approaching the bank. If the person seeking the Medallion Guarantee is the personal representative of an estate the bank will also want to see a certified copy of the death certificate. Every bank has its own internal procedures and requirements. You can read sample procedures promulgated by the American Banking Association here.

The tricky case is where the fiduciary seeking a Medallion Guarantee is an agent under a power of attorney. The banker is required to read and interpret the power of attorney to determine if the power of attorney permits the transaction that the agent wants to complete. Thus, if the agent wanted to transfer the stock to himself, the banker might search the power of attorney for the power to make gifts. In this situation, obtaining of a Medallion Guarantee depends on the ability of a retail banker to interpret a power of attorney. This sort of interpretation is difficult enough for experienced elder law lawyers. Your results in a bank are guaranteed to vary.

Transfer agents are form-driven bureaucracies and the forms are not always the easiest to understand.. When you, as a fiduciary, need to make stock transfers, get the forms from the transfer agent. Make sure that the forms show the value of the transaction (so the Medallion stamp holder knows whether it is within his or her authorization). Then cross your fingers and go to the bank for the for a Medallion Guarantee

Computershare is one of the big transfer agents in the U.S. It's forms are as confusing as any and it is not unusual to get odd decisions out of them. Recently I submitted a transfer request--with a Medallion stamp--and Computershare responded with a statement that the company believed my client to be dead. Proving through documentary evidence that someone is alive is fairly difficult. I invented a "life certificate" to do this, but I suspect Computershare came around when I pointed out that the Medallion stamp guarantees capacity. One of the elements of capacity is life. Computershare bought the argument and allowed the transfer. In most cases, getting the Medallion Stamp is only an annoying hassle. In that case, the Medallion Guarantee actually helped the fiduciary.