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Angie Wieck, Published September 22 2013

It's My Job: Estate planning attorney an advocate for her clients

FARGO – Susan Johnson-Drenth has long considered herself an advocate for others. She began as an advocate for patients while working as a cardiac ICU nurse at Sanford Health.

Years later, as an estate planning attorney with an elder care specialty, she advocates on behalf of her clients.

“As a nurse listens to their patients and listens to their stories to give the best care, I try and really listen to what people want to do and then find the best way to get through the different laws, tax codes and administrative rules to make sure I can do my best for them,” said Johnson-Drenth.

While many of her clients are older individuals going through a second round of estate planning, she is quick to say it is never too early to start.

What are the top five things people should know about estate planning?

• Health care directive: This document that allows you to name your health care decision maker is free to the public and can be picked up at your local hospital. Anyone 18 years and older can sign one. So, if your children are heading off to college and you want to be able to make medical decisions in case something happens to them, go pick up a health care directive form at the hospital or your clinic and have your child sign it. As long as they’re over 18, they’re allowed to make all their medical decisions and the HIPAA protection is going to provide them federal privacy rights, but HIPPA is also going to block you from having any say in their health care if they’re incapacitated.

• Power of attorney: It’s a very common misunderstanding that when you sign a will and name an executor or personal representative in your will that the person can handle your affairs in case you become incapacitated with a stroke or other illness in your lifetime, but of course the person named in your will is there to serve at the time you die. A power of attorney is needed to manage your affairs when you’re alive, so that’s an entirely separate document from your will. A durable general power of attorney is incredibly important as soon as you have any assets that require management such as a house, real estate, bank accounts, insurance and retirement plans.

• Avoiding probate: Another misconception is that by signing a will you are avoiding probate for your family. A will is a list of instructions for the probate judge. A will does not avoid probate. … Everyone should have a will, but then you should have the conversation with your attorney on whether it makes sense to avoid probate and take steps for will substitutes such as naming beneficiaries on your accounts or having joint owners on your accounts or real estate.

• Estate taxes: Minnesota has estate tax for assets going to a non-spouse that exceeds $1 million. North Dakota has estate tax that is federalized, so they go with the federal figure that is currently $5,250,000. We’ve had some surprised families who find out there is tens of thousands of dollars due in tax. With proper planning, a lot of that estate tax can be minimized or eliminated.

• Medical assistance planning: Occasionally people will think that Medicare pays more for the nursing home than they do. To summarize a complex program, Medicare caps out its payments at 100 days. Not everyone will receive those 100 days. It depends on the level of care you’re receiving. Then, an individual in a nursing home will be private pay, long-term care insurance or medical assistance. People are shocked to find out how stringent the medical assistance rules are. It’s not like Medicare, which is an entitlement. Medical assistance is an eligibility program and there are many requirements to become eligible, including the fact that you can’t have given away assets in the five years prior to the time that you make the application.

To submit an idea for “It’s My Job,” e-mail businessnews@forumcomm.com.


• Business: JD Legal Planning.

• Location: 2525 S. University Drive, Fargo.

• Phone: (701) 364-9595

Readers can reach Forum reporter Angie Wieck at (701) 241-5501