Category: Elder Law

How the Guardianship Process Works

How the Guardianship Process Works

For family members of the estimated 6.5 million dementia patients in the U.S., it is crucial to understand whether guardianship may be an option for their loved one. A recent article from Next Avenue titled “Thinking of Becoming a Guardian?” explains how the guardianship process works and what factors go into the decision-making process.

Guardianship is the position of being responsible for someone else. State courts usually appoint a guardian to make decisions for a person, if the court finds that person to be incapacitated or unable to make safe and reasonable decisions for themselves. People who are placed under guardianship, known as “wards,” often lose their independence in making financial, legal and health care decisions.

If full guardianship is awarded, the person cannot make decisions about whether they may vote, marry, where they live, or make their own end-of-life decisions.

Two tasks that are evaluated when considering guardianship are a person’s ability to manage personal finances and to take medications as prescribed.

The court may call on a geriatrician or psychiatrist to evaluate the person’s functional behavior, cognitive function, disabling conditions and ability to meet their essential needs.

There are benefits to guardianship for someone who is not able to care for themselves. It ideally creates a safety net for a person who cannot make informed decisions for themselves.

this, of course, assumes that the guardian is honest and accountable, which is not always the case. The inconsistencies plaguing the guardianship system include minimum standards for guardians, lack of regular independent reviews of the need for guardianship and lack of educational requirements for guardians.

Once guardianship is assigned, there is a tendency for the person to become lost when no follow-up is done. The very same person who lacks capacity to care for themselves is not going to be able to advocate for themselves, contact an attorney or access funds for court proceedings.

There is also a tendency to assign full guardianship for a person, rather than less restrictive alternatives.

There are alternatives, but they require planning and discussion. More than 40% of Americans have not discussed their wishes for end-of-life care with their loved ones, according to an article in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. Families should have a conversation at the first sign of memory loss or when preparing for retirement regarding wishes for end-of-life care and write them down as part of an Advanced Directive—also known as a Living Will and Health Care Power of Attorney—when preparing their estate plan.

Another important document, although not legally binding, is a “Value History,” where you share your values and beliefs as they may impact care choices.

Designate a Power of Attorney and list two or even three back-up candidates. This person will be responsible for financial, legal and personal matters, avoiding the need for guardianship.

Appointing a family member or friend as a guardian is the ideal solution. However, there are instances when the best person to be a guardian is not a family member, but a court-appointed outsider. This relieves the family of being the ones who need to inform a person suffering from dementia with the news of having to move into a nursing home facility or sifting through financial records to learn that the family home is in foreclosure. The family can focus on being supportive and loving, while the guardian deals with the sometimes harsh realities of the person’s life.

Speak with your estate planning attorney to learn about how the guardianship process works, and whether it may be the right move for your family. If you would like to learn more about guardianships, please visit our previous posts.

Reference: Next Avenue (Dec. 23, 2022) “Thinking of Becoming a Guardian?”

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Qualified Charitable Distributions Reduce Tax Burden

Qualified Charitable Distributions Reduce Tax Burden

Assets held in Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) are unquestionably the best assets to gift to charity, since IRAs are loaded with taxes. One way to relieve this tax burden is by using the IRA for charitable giving during your lifetime, says a recent article, “Giving funds in IRAs to charity with QCDs,” from Investment News. Qualified charitable distributions can help reduce your tax burden.

Most people who give to charity don’t receive the taxable benefit because they don’t itemize deductions. They instead use the higher standard deduction, which offers no extra tax deduction for charitable giving.

Older taxpayers are more likely to use the standard deduction, since taxpayers aged 65 and older receive an extra standard deduction. In 2022, the standard deduction for a married couple filing jointly when each of the spouses are 65 and older is $28,700. The exceptions are couples with large medical expenses or those who make large charitable gifts.

Here’s where the IRA for charitable giving comes in. IRAs normally may not be given to charity or anyone in the owner’s life (except in the case of divorce). There is one exception: giving IRAs to charity with a QCD.

The QCD is a direct transfer of traditional IRA funds to a qualified charity. The QCD is an exclusion from income, which reduces Adjusted Gross Income. AGI is the most significant number on the tax return because it determines the availability of many tax deductions, credits and other benefits. Lowering AGI with a QCD could also work to reduce “stealth” taxes–taxes on Social Security benefits or Medicare premium surcharges.

QCDs are limited to $100,000 per person, per year (not per IRA). They can also satisfy RMDs up to the $100,000, but only if the timing is right.

There are some limitations to discuss with your estate planning attorney. For instance, QCDs are only available to IRA owners who are 70 ½ or older. They can only be made once you turn age 70 ½, not anytime in the year you turn 70 ½. The difference matters.

QCDs are not available from 401(k) or other employer plans. They also aren’t allowed for gifts to Donor Advised Funds (DAFs) and private foundations, and they can’t be made from active SEP or SIMPLE IRAs, where contributions are still being made.

Appreciated stocks can also be gifted to qualified charities and itemized deductions taken for the fair market value of the stock, if it was held for more than one year. There’s no tax on appreciation, as there would be if the stock were sold instead of gifted.

There are some tax traps to consider, including the SECURE Act, which allows traditional IRAs to be made after age 70 ½. However, it pairs the provision with a poison pill. If the IRA deduction is taken in the same year as a QCD, or any year before the QCD, the QCD tax exclusion could be reduced or lost. This can be avoided by making Roth IRA contributions instead of tax-deductible IRA contributions after age 70 ½.

Speak with your estate planning attorney about whether using qualified charitable distributions to help reduce your tax burden makes sense for your estate planning and tax situation. If you would like to learn more about charitable giving, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: Investment News (Dec. 9, 2022) “Giving funds in IRAs to charity with QCDs”

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Avoid Leaving Residual Assets Behind

Avoid Leaving Residual Assets Behind

This is also known as estate residue or residual estate. It simply means the assets left over after a will has been read, assets have been distributed to heirs and any final expenses have been paid. An estate planning attorney can help avoid leaving residual assets behind, with a comprehensive estate plan, reports a recent article titled “How to Write a Residuary Estate Clause in a Will” from yahoo!

A will is a legal document used to name guardians for minor children and providing directions for how you want assets to be distributed when you pass. Any assets not included in your will or distributed through a trust automatically become part of the residuary estate on your death.

This can happen deliberately or unintentionally. For example, your will can state your wishes to have certain assets left to certain people. However, your will could also include a residual estate clause explaining what should happen to any assets not already named in the will. In this case, you’re intentionally creating a residual estate, and planning for it at the time of the will’s creation.

Some residual estates are created without advance planning. Here’s how that happens:

  • If you forget to include assets in your will.
  • If you acquired new assets after drafting a will and do not add a codicil making provision for the distribution of the assets.
  • Someone named in the will dies before you or is unable to receive the inheritance you left for them.

This can also happen if you set up a Payable On Death (POD) account but neglect to add a beneficiary to the account. Any funds in the account would be lumped into the residual estate.

What happens if you draft a will and don’t have a residuary estate clause? Any unclaimed or overlooked assets will be distributed, according to your state’s inheritance guidelines. However, this is only done after any estate taxes, outstanding debts or final expenses have been paid. Assets would be distributed as if you did not have a will. Heirs at law would receive assets according to kinship, including spouse, children, parents, siblings and other relatives.

How does a trust work in relation to a residual estate? Trusts are legal entities allowing you to transfer assets to a trustee. The trustee is responsible for managing assets on behalf of the trust for beneficiaries according to your wishes. You may want to establish a trust if you have a substantial estate, want to plan for a family member with special needs or if you wish to create a charitable giving legacy.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to avoid leaving residual assets behind. Your attorney will determine whether your will should have a residual clause and what assets should be included. They will also be able to determine whether you need additional estate planning strategies, including a revocable living trust. If you would like to learn more about drafting a Will or Trust, please visit our previous posts.

Reference: yahoo! (Dec. 4, 2022) “How to Write a Residuary Estate Clause in a Will”

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A Durable Power of Attorney is Essential

A Durable Power of Attorney is Essential

A durable power of attorney is essential to a comprehensive estate plan. A power of attorney is a legal document in which you authorize another person (called an agent) or financial institution to act on your behalf to execute certain financial transactions in the event that you’re unable to do so. Transaction might include paying bills, handling insurance claims, selling real estate and filing a tax return.

WMUR’s recent article entitled “Reasons you may need a durable power of attorney” reminds us that this is a cumbersome, time-consuming and potentially expensive process at a time of immediate needs and emotional stress.

Your spouse can probably do the basic bill paying. However, many financial transactions—like the sale of an investment or home—require both spouses’ signatures. You may have some assets in only your name. That means your spouse would have no access to those assets should they be needed to pay the medical expenses due to the disability that’s preventing you from handling your own finances.

Some types of powers of attorney are simply convenience documents that are used for specific transactions or to manage finances for a limited time while a person is out of town. However, there’s also a durable power of attorney for medical care. With this document, you name someone to make medical decisions on your behalf should you be incapacitated. It’s a separate document.

Most commonly, a “durable” financial power of attorney goes into effect upon signing and remains in effect through any incapacity and until your death unless you revoke it. This power of attorney typically allows the agent to perform a broad range of financial transactions on behalf of the person.

A durable power of attorney is essential to a comprehensive estate plan. Ask an experienced estate planning attorney to draft the power of attorney, because to be effective, it needs to meet state law. These laws vary from state to state.

In addition to granting broad powers, the POA must be specific about certain rights granted to the agent. For example, the grantor may give an agent the right to make gifts on behalf of the grantor, the right to complete and sign your tax returns, exercise stock options, or sue a third party.

However, you might want to add some restrictions, such as the conditions in which your assets can be sold. Your attorney may also retain the document for you pending release, if you should become incapacitated. If you would like to learn more about powers of attorney, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: WMUR (May 5, 2022) “Reasons you may need a durable power of attorney”

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Young Professionals Need Estate Planning

Young Professionals Need Estate Planning

Even those whose daily tasks bring them close to death on a daily basis can be reluctant to consider having an estate plan done. However, young professionals, or high-income earners, needs estate planning to protect assets and prepare for incapacity. Estate planning also makes matters easier for loved ones, explains a recent article titled “Physician estate planning guide” from Medical Economics. An estate plan gets your wishes honored, minimizes court expenses and maintains family harmony.

Having an estate plan is needed by anyone, at any age or stage of life. A younger professional may be less inclined to consider estate planning. However, it’s a mistake to put it off.

Start by meeting with an experienced estate planning attorney in your home state. Have a power of attorney drafted to give a trusted person the ability to make decisions on your behalf should you become incapacitated. Not having this legal relationship leads to big problems. Your family will need to go to court to have a conservatorship or guardianship established to do something as simple as make a mortgage payment. Having a POA is a far better solution.

Next, talk with your estate planning attorney about a last will and testament and any trusts you might need. A will is a simpler method. However, if you have substantial assets, you may benefit from the protection a trust affords.

A will names your executor and expresses your wishes for property distribution. The will doesn’t become effective until after death when it’s reviewed by the court and verified during probate. The executor named in the will is then appointed to act on the directions in the will.

Most states don’t require an executor to be notified in advance. However, people should discuss this role with the person who they want to appoint. It’s not always a welcome surprise, and there’s no requirement for the named person to serve.

A trust is created to own property outside of the estate. It’s created and becomes effective while the person is still living and is often described as “kinder” to beneficiaries, especially if the grantor owns their practice and has complex business arrangements.

Trusts are useful for people who own assets in more than one state. In some cases, deeds to properties can be added into one trust, streamlining and consolidating assets and making it simpler to redirect after death.

Irrevocable trusts are especially useful to any doctor concerned about being sued for malpractice. An irrevocable trust helps protect assets from creditors seeking to recover assets.

Young professionals need estate planning because not being prepared with an estate plan addressing incapacity and death leads to a huge burden for loved ones. Once the plan is created, it should be updated every three to five years. Updating the plan is far easier than the initial creation and reflects changes in one’s life and in the law. If you would like to read more about estate planning for business owners, please visit our previous posts.

Reference: Medical Economics (Nov. 30, 2022) “Physician estate planning guide”

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Guardianship is a Valuable tool to Protect Loved Ones

Guardianship is a Valuable tool to Protect Loved Ones

Guardianship is a valuable tool to protect loved ones. It is usually an act of last resort, embarked upon when there is no lesser restrictive means of protecting a person. There are steps to be taken to avoid being placed under guardianship, including signing a durable financial power of attorney and a medical power of attorney to allow someone of your choosing to make important decisions for you.

If you have these documents and later become incapacitated, there won’t be a need for guardianship because you’ll have an agent or agents in place to act on your behalf.

It is when there has been no advance planning and you develop a significant cognitive impairment when guardianship becomes necessary, according to a recent article, “Guardianship gone good: Protections afforded by guardianship may be necessary,” from The Dallas Morning News.

What if the powers of attorney you had so diligently prepared became invalid? It is possible but can be easily avoided if you take the right preventive steps.

First, make sure to review these documents every now and then. If someone you named to serve in one of these roles has moved far away, they may not be able to serve. Do you have a second person named for financial or medical POA? The same could occur if the person named became incapacitated, died, or declined to serve.

Second, you could have an agent who does not act in your best interest, often referred to as a “rogue” agent. This could be worse than having no agent.

Third, if you are acting against your own best interest, there’s not much a power of attorney can do to protect you from yourself. If your incapacity leads you to making bad decisions which jeopardize your own welfare, a court may create a guardianship to protect you from yourself.

This is why guardianships are nuanced, with every situation requiring a different solution.

For example, levels of incapacity vary. If the cognitive impairment is mild, you may not need someone to act for you. If your impairment is severe and leads to self-harm, violent outbursts or harm to others, a guardianship may become necessary.

Another concern for families whose loved ones have become incapacitated is their vulnerability to scammers.

While guardianship receives a lot of negative coverage in the media, it is, in many instances, a useful and valuable tool used to protect loved ones. If you would like to learn more about guardianships, please visit our previous posts.

Reference: The Dallas Morning News (Nov. 13, 2022) “Guardianship gone good: Protections afforded by guardianship may be necessary”

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There is Great Value in Special Needs Trust

There is Great Value in Special Needs Trust

Parents with children who have special needs know they play a pivotal role in their child’s medical, social, emotional and mental health. They also face the challenges of figuring out government assistance programs like Medicaid and how these and other programs provide much-needed help throughout a child’s life. Another important way that parents of children with special needs help is with the creation of a special needs trust, as explained in the article “Special Needs Trust (SNT): What It Is and How It Works” from Forbes. There is great value in a special needs trust.

A special needs trust is used to hold assets in an account to be used to support an individual with special needs. The funds belong to the trust and not the individual, so they are not factored into their eligibility for government benefits.

SNTs are typically set up by a parent, grandparent, or guardian. The person who sets up the account, called the “grantor,” funds the account, as may any other individuals who wish to provide for the child.

The grantor names a trustee, or a third party, who administers the trust. The trustee is a fiduciary and must act in the best interest of the beneficiary. Funds are to be distributed in accordance with the directions in the trust. The trustee will be responsible for distributing funds, following government benefit rules and requirements, and managing tax obligations, among other things.

Parents are often the trustees, although others, like siblings or close relatives, may also be trustees. Parents who are both grantor and trustee generally name a successor trustee to take over after they die, become incapacitated or resign from their role.

A person who may not be able to support themselves due to a medical condition or a disability can gain financial security from an SNT. This is one of the great values of a special needs trust.

Someone with special needs is likely to rely on means-tested government benefits, like Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Medicaid. These benefits are only available to people with limited income or assets. Anyone receiving SSI, for example, may not have more than $2,000 of countable resources.

A parent who wishes to provide support after they die must plan in advance, so their bequest does not result in the person losing their benefits. This could happen if money is left through anything except a special needs trust. An estate planning attorney will know how to structure the parent’s estate plan to protect the individual with special needs and their government benefits.

Assets in an SNT can be used for a wide variety of expenses, including out-of-pocket medical or dental expenses, personal care givers, rehab services, education, vacations, and other permissible uses.

There is a lot of complexity involved with creating a special needs trust. For one, there are several different kinds of SNTs. You’ll want to select the one best suited for your family. Laws about means-tested benefits vary across states, so you’ll need to work with an estate planning attorney familiar with the laws of your state.

A well-drafted estate plan, incorporating a special needs trust can be of great value to the parents of a child with special needs.  It will provide your loved one with the resources to maintain as much normalcy as possible as they adjust to life without their parents. If you would like to learn more about special needs planning, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: Forbes (Sep. 22, 2022) “Special Needs Trust (SNT): What It Is and How It Works”

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Creating an Estate Plan with Minor Children

Creating an Estate Plan with Minor Children

Creating an estate plan with minor children in mind has a host of variables quite different than one where all heirs are adults. If the intention is for the minor children to be beneficiaries, or if there is a remote chance a minor child might become an unintended beneficiary, different provisions will be needed. A recent article titled “Children need special attention in estate planning” from The News-Enterprise explains how these situations might be addressed.

Does the person creating the will—aka, the testator—want property to be distributed to a minor child? If so, how is the distribution is to occur, tax consequences and safeguards need to be put into place. Much depends upon the relationship of the testator to the minor child. An older individual may want to leave specific dollar bequests for minor children or great-grandchildren, while people with younger children generally leave their entire estate in fractional shares to their own minor children as primary beneficiaries.

While minor children and grandchildren beneficiaries are excluded from inheritance taxes in certain states, great- grandchildren are not. Your estate planning attorney will be able to provide details on who is subject to inheritance, federal and state estate taxes. This needs to be part of your estate plan.

If minor children are the intended beneficiaries of a fractional share of the estate in its entirety, distributions may be held in a common trust or divided into separate share for each minor child. A common trust is used to hold all property to benefit all of the children, until the youngest child reaches a determined age. When this occurs, the trust is split into separate shares according to the trust directions, when each share is managed for the individual beneficiary.

Instructions to the trustee as to how much of the income and principal each beneficiary is to receive and when, at what age or intervals each beneficiary may exercise full control over the assets and what purposes the trust property is intended for until the beneficiary reaches a certain age are details which need to be clearly explained in the trust.

Trusts for minor children are often specifically to be used for health, education, maintenance, or support needs of the beneficiary, within the discretion of the trustee. This has to be outlined in the trust document.

Even if the intention is not to make minor children beneficiaries, care must be taken to include provisions if they are family members. The will or trust must be clear on how property passed to minor child beneficiaries is to be distributed. This may be done through a requirement to put distributions into a trust or may leave a list of options for the executor.

Testators need to keep in mind the public nature of probate. Whatever is left to a minor child will be a matter of public record, which could make the child vulnerable to scammers or predatory family members. Consider using a revocable living trust as an alternative to safeguard the child and the assets.

Regardless of whether a will or trust is used, there should be a person named to act as the child’s guardian and their conservator or trustee, who manages their finances. The money manager does not have to be a parent or relative but must be a trustworthy person.

Review your specific situation with your estate planning attorney when creating an estate plan to protect your minor children. This will ensure their financial and lifestyle stability. If you would like to learn more about estate planning for minor children, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Sep. 10, 2022) “Children need special attention in estate planning”

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What Is the Purpose of a Guardian?

What Is the Purpose of a Guardian?

The most frequently asked questions about guardianship concern when it’s needed, how the process works and is there a way to avoid it. The idea of guardianship may feel troubling if you’ve never known anyone who needed a guardian, says a recent article “Guardian process can be lengthy, difficult” from The News-Enterprise. What is the purpose of a guardian, exactly?

Simply put, guardianship is a court proceeding restricting or removing the right of a person to manage their own financial, legal and medical affairs.

Guardianship is not exclusive to elderly individuals, as it is often used to protect adults and older children with disabilities. The purpose of a guardian is mainly when the person is unable to manage their own finances, incapable of understanding the scope and consequences of making their own medical decisions or is at risk of exploitation due to diminished capacity.

The process for obtaining guardianship for another person is complicated and takes at least several months before a guardianship order is entered into the legal record.

The first step is for the person who seeks guardianship for another person to file a petition with the District Court in the county where the impaired person lives. The person who files the petition is known as the petitioner and the person who needs the guardianship is known as the respondent. The petitioner is usually a family member but may also be a concerned person or an institution, like a nursing facility.

The petition is often paired with a request for emergency guardianship pending a trial. If the court doesn’t order the emergency order immediately, a short trial may be needed to get an emergency order. The court then sets a trial date and issues an order for an evaluation.

Different states have different requirements, which is why the help of an experienced estate planning attorney is needed. In some states, reports from three independent team members are needed: a healthcare professional, which is typically the respondent’s primary care physician; a mental health professional and a social worker, often from Adult Protective Services.

Each person from the team must conduct an independent evaluation and submit a separate report to the court with their findings and a recommendation. In some states, the guardianship moves to a trial, while in other states the trial is held in front of a judge.

If the guardianship is granted, by trial or by the judge, a guardian is appointed to make decisions for the person and a conservator is named. The conservator is in charge of the person’s finances. Both the guardian and conservator are required to file reports with the court concerning their actions on behalf of the respondent throughout the duration of their roles.

How can guardianship be avoided? It’s far simpler and less costly for the family to work with an estate planning attorney to have Durable Powers of Attorney and Health Care Power of Attorney documents created in advance of any incapacity. Paired with fully funded revocable living trusts, the family can have complete control over their loved one without court intervention.

These documents cannot be prepared after a person is incapacitated, so a pro-active approach must be taken long before they are needed. Consult with an experienced estate planning attorney who will help you understand the purpose and expectations of a guardian. If you would like to learn more about guardianship, please visit our previous posts.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Sep. 24, 2022) “Guardian process can be lengthy, difficult”

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A Life Estate can help Protect your Property

A Life Estate can help Protect your Property

If you are concerned about your loved ones losing control of the family home, a life estate can help protect your property. A life estate is a type of property ownership that divides the control and ownership of a property. The person who creates the life estate for their home and assets is known as the “life tenant.” While a tenant retains control of the property, he or she shares ownership during their lifetime with the remainderman (the estate’s heir).

Quicken Loans’ recent article entitled “What Is A Life Estate And What Property Rights Does It Confer?” explains that while the life tenant lives, they’re in control of the property in all respects, except they can’t sell or encumber the property without the consent of the remaindermen. After the life tenant passes away, the remainderman inherits the property and avoids probate. This is a popular estate planning tool that automatically transfers ownership at the life tenant’s death to their heirs.

The life estate deed shows the terms of the life estate. Upon the death of the life tenant, the heir must only provide the death certificate to the county clerk to assume total ownership of the property.

Medicaid can play an essential role in many older adults’ lives, giving them the financial support needed for nursing facilities, home health care and more. However, the government considers your assets when calculating Medicaid eligibility. As a result, owning a home – or selling it and keeping the proceeds – could impact those benefits. When determining your eligibility for Medicaid, most states will use a five-year look-back period. This means they will total up all the assets you’ve held, sold, or transferred over the last five years. If the value of these assets passes above a certain threshold, you’ll likely be ineligible for Medicaid assistance.

However, a life estate can help protect elderly property owners by allowing them to avoid selling their home to pay for nursing home expenses. If your life estate deed was established more than five years before you first apply for benefits, the homeownership transfer would not count against you for Medicaid eligibility purposes.

To ensure you’re correctly navigating qualifying for Medicaid, it’s smart to discuss your situation with an attorney specializing in Medicaid issues. If you would like to learn more about life estates, please visit our previous posts.

Reference: Quicken Loans (Aug. 9, 2022) “What Is A Life Estate And What Property Rights Does It Confer?”

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Information in our blogs is very general in nature and should not be acted upon without first consulting with an attorney. Please feel free to contact Texas Trust Law to schedule a complimentary consultation.
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