estate planning attorney

A Discussion With Estate Planning Attorney Rebecca Stewart

In this captivating interview with Rebecca Stewart, a seasoned estate planning attorney in East Lansing, Michigan, we delve into the often-overlooked aspects of transitioning young adults into college, particularly in terms of health and financial matters. Rebecca highlights the legal shift that occurs when a child turns 18, rendering them independent in the eyes of the law and leaving parents without the authority they once had.

Rebecca’s advice for parents is illuminating, urging them to be proactive in protecting their children’s well-being and assets through essential legal documents. Dive in as Rebecca outlines a range of critical documents that parents and young adults should consider, even before reaching the traditional retirement age. Healthcare Power of Attorney, HIPAA Authorization, Durable Power of Attorney, and Customized Power of Attorney all play distinct roles in safeguarding an individual’s healthcare decisions, medical records access, financial management, and even educational interactions.Tune into the episode of The Legal Odyssey Podcast as Rebecca imparts invaluable insights or dive in right below!

What led you to become an attorney?

Like a lot of argumentative kids, I had a lot of adults tell me you should be an attorney, which you realize once you go to law school, that was not a compliment they were giving you. I did not have anyone in my family that was an attorney. I didn’t actually know what attorneys did. So I became a legal secretary for 13 years. I got a lot of experience, got a lot of opportunities to decide if I really wanted to spend three years and invest the money to go to law school. After 13 years as a legal secretary, I decided to do it.

Why did you decide to focus solely on Estate Planning and Probate as your practice areas?

One of the first places I worked right out of legal secretary school was for a public administrator. In Michigan, a public administrator is someone who is appointed for people who are not able to make financial or medical decisions for themselves, someone who does not have anyone named, or someone who doesn’t have anyone available. I was 25 years old and I was consenting to medical procedures for people who were my grandparents’ ages. It was really scary and it was a lot to kind of coach people through. Throughout that experience, I realized that was something I was passionate about and that I wanted to help senior citizens because they’re so vulnerable. I became absolutely obsessed with helping people avoid having a public guardian appointed.

What are the top legal ramifications that parents might overlook during the transition into college, especially in the child’s health and financial information?

Many students are beyond excited for the transition into college. Many parents are wondering how they are going to pay for it, and what they need to purchase to prepare them to be on their own. They are thinking about sheets, towels, and all of that exciting stuff, the gear for the university. During all of the fun and excitement, parents tend to forget that the child is now 18. In the eyes of the state, they are now an adult and while they are always going to be “your baby,” you no longer have the ability to step in and help them file taxes or help them with their banking or help them fill out the FASFA forms. You can’t go to the doctor’s appointments with them anymore without their consent. You can’t call the doctor for them and find out what’s going on or get their prescriptions filled for them because they’re now a separate legal adult. Parents forget that if something happens, they can’t step in the way they’ve always been able to before. Unfortunately, it’s a huge thing that gets overlooked especially when we’re talking about that transition into college.

What are possible solutions that parents can use to help avoid legal battles or roadblocks should an emergent situation come up where they do need immediate help or financial information for their child?

There are a couple of options. It’s so funny because everybody thinks of estate planning as something you do when you’re older or retired, but there’s a handful of documents that are so essential for families to consider at 18. 

  • Healthcare Power of Attorney/Patient Advocate – The first one, and the one I try to push the most, is a patient advocate or a healthcare power of attorney. If a child (now 18) is in a car accident and they’re unconscious or they’re under heavy sedation making them unable to make medical decisions for themselves, this allows the parent to step in and make those decisions, have the talks with their doctors and help their child through the process like they’ve always done. Without that document, you’re talking about $157 to file a petition in Michigan. Once you file the petition, you’re going to have a hearing in front of a judge. You have to overcome several roadblocks all to make the same decisions that you’ve been making for your child for the past 18 years, whereas completing a very small form beforehand can get you that exact same power.
  • HIPPA Authorization – The HIPPA Authorization form is a companion form to that healthcare power of attorney. Most people are familiar with this form. You fill them out at your doctor’s office. As a parent, It just gives you access to your child’s medical records so you can see what’s going on, and make informed decisions.
  • Durable Power of Attorney – The durable power of attorney is a form that I often see the children more interested in having. The durable power of attorney enables the parents to file the childrens taxes on their behalf and do other banking assistance. If your child goes overseas to study abroad, having a durable power of attorney allows them to sign and file documents on their behalf or do their banking for them. This can be a critical step to overcoming several challenges when the child is in a completely different country. 
  • Customized Power of Attorney – A customized power of attorney can be filed specifically for college kids. It complies with the federal regulations because a lot of parents don’t realize you can no longer access your child’s grades. The school can’t tell you if they’re going to classes. It can’t give you information on discipline. Unless you have a power of attorney that specifically grants you those powers, you contact the school, they’re going to turn you away. They’re not going to be able to help you. Having all the necessary forms in place just allows you, while your child is transitioning into adulthood, to continue to kind of be that safety net for them, which is so essential in those years.

Where do students that are attending college outside of their home state have to execute the forms?

As is often the case with legal situations, an ounce of prevention is huge. If you’re thinking about these documents, the best time to do them is that period of May to July when your child is still at home and still a resident of your home state. Because if you get a document executed while they’re still a resident of their home state and it complies with the laws of that state, it should be recognized in the next state. If you wait and your kid’s already in the dorm, you’re going to have to start looking for an estate planning attorney who’s licensed in the state where they’re living to make sure that document complies. 

So, the best time to work through the power of attorney forms and the like is right after graduation, but before you pack up the car and send them on their way. It’s not impossible to get it done at the state in which they’re going to school, but it can make it a little trickier.

What advice would you give someone to help find them an attorney that can provide the best estate planning services in East Lansing, Michigan?

Do not be afraid to look for somebody who is the right personality fit. I’m not always the right personality fit for somebody. The people down the road are not always the right personality fit. When you’re talking about medical decisions, when you’re talking about the most personal moments in your life where you’re out of control, you want someone you are comfortable sharing and talking to. You want someone who you feel like is listening to you and following what you need. The goal of this document is to step in if you’re no longer able to speak for yourself, so we want it to say what you want.

It’s important to recognize the resource that an estate planning attorney can be for the entire family. If you’re meeting an estate planning attorney with your child when they are 18, they are already building a relationship with someone they can trust for the future. The estate planner can step in to help with several big milestones like getting married, getting pregnant and having children, purchasing assets, etc. 

While it is possible to get the power of attorney forms done on your own online, there are some major advantages to having an attorney by your side to get everything executed. Can you discuss some challenges you have seen people run into when they have attempted to file these forms alone?

Every estate planner can tell you the story of a client who either passed away with documents they got online that were not at all what was needed or what the client wanted. We all have the stories of the client who says, I got my documents done online, but now I’m not so sure about them. Can you come look at them? The two biggest things I would say is number one, when you’re using those services, you’re (frequently) not actually speaking with an attorney. You’re speaking with the computer. While there are many things the computer is good at, it can’t read you, it can’t see you, and it doesn’t have a history of interacting with people in these situations and having conversations about these documents. For example, a computer doesn’t know that a hesitation in your answer is showing that you’re not quite sure and that we need to push a little harder to make sure that the document does what you want. The other issue you run into with online services is try as we might, but every state’s laws are different. These companies try to create a one size fits all service but that does not always create a valid document in your state. 

Going to a local estate planner is going to ensure number one, that they really check with you to make sure that those documents are tailored to your needs and your desires. And number two, that they work within the laws of your state. In the example of a healthcare power of attorney, when you meet with a local estate planner you will complete a document that all of the hospitals are going to be able to recognize. They’ve seen it before, they’re familiar with it, they know how to use it. Same thing’s going to go for the bank and hiring an estate planner to assist with durable power of attorney. However, if you’re using an online template, it likely won’t be the state’s regularly used form and might be confusing to the healthcare professional. Then, at that point, you’re back to where you started, where you have got confusion around the forms when we were trying to avoid confusion with the completion of the forms. I certainly understand the appeal of them, but particularly when you’re talking about something as personal as healthcare decision-making, financial decision-making, or what happens to your belongings when you’re gone, you really need to meet with somebody and talk with somebody. The other thing is, if a family member isn’t sure how to interpret certain documents, they can’t ask the online service about the conversation they had with the family member while getting the documents done. However, you can call me, you can call the attorney that they worked with. I could perhaps, if you are on the list of people I can talk to, give you some insights into the conversation we had that could help you better make decisions (if you’re in a place to make a decision for the loved one).

For someone that is seeking a probate or an estate planning attorney in East Lansing, Michigan, is there anything else you’d like to share?

If a firm is asking you for an initial payment upfront, meaning your consultation is not free, that firm is going to charge you a lot of money and I’m not saying that means they are good or bad, but if you are budget conscious at all, this is something that is crucial to be aware of. Somebody who does not offer you a free consultation is going to charge you much higher than people who offer free consultations. 

The other thing to think about, and nobody seems to think about this, and maybe it’s my background as a support staff member, is how that support team treats you. Was the secretary friendly on the phone? Did they seem happy at their job? Does the receptionist seem happy to be there or do they seem like they’re miserable? People who do not take good care of their staff do not care about their clients. If they don’t care about the people they work with every single day, they don’t care about you. When it comes to this kind of document, you really need somebody who understands, takes the time, and cares about what’s important to you. Again, these documents are going to step in when you’re no longer able to speak for yourself.

In a world where legal complexities often intersect with personal and familial concerns, Rebecca Stewart emerges as a guiding light, illuminating the often-overlooked pathways of estate planning and probate law. As we reflect on her invaluable insights, it becomes evident that the transition into college involves legal considerations for the entire family including  the protection of health and financial interests. By emphasizing the role of professional guidance and personalized attention, estate planning attorney Rebecca Stewart redefines the approach to estate planning, reminding us that the crafting of certain legal binding documents during a child’s transition to college are not merely legal obligations but powerful tools that secure our wants, needs and desires while safeguarding our legacies.

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