Category: Powers of Attorney

Mistakes can lead to an Invalid Will

Mistakes can lead to an Invalid Will

One of the many reasons an experienced estate planning attorney is the best resource for creating an estate plan, including a Last Will and Testament, Power of Attorney and Health Care Proxy, is the confidence of knowing your estate plan has been properly prepared. People who believe they know better than an experienced lawyer, often send their families into a legal, financial, and emotional black hole after they die. Mistakes can lead to an invalid will. The article “Red Flags Indicating a Potentially Invalid Will” from The National Law Journal provides a closer look at why it pays to work with a professional.

When a decedent executes a new Last Will near the end of their life and makes a dramatic change to previous estate plans, there may be trouble ahead. When this is the case, several issues need to be examined to ensure that the document is valid. Strong consideration must be given to whether the person had sufficient capacity to execute the document.

When a person is suffering from an illness or near death, they may be susceptible to the improper influence of people who may cause them to make uncharacteristic changes to their estate plan. Any Last Will drafted within the last few months of a person’s life requires careful review.

If, shortly after a person has handed the reins of their financial life to another, using a Power of Attorney in any of its forms (Durable POA, Springing POA) and a new Last Will is created, a red flag should be raised, especially if the Last Will has been changed to benefit this person.

What if a person’s capacity was hovering near the borderline of capacity and incapacity? If a decedent’s mental capacity was questionable at the time the Last Will was executed, the Last Will may not be valid. A person with legal mental capacity must understand the assets they own and clearly understand to whom they are bequeathing assets. The standard for this issue is low, but if the decedent was suffering from a degenerative mental condition or a sudden onset of incapacity due to an illness or accident, the Last Will may be challenged.

If a layperson creates a Last Will or uses an online service to create it and the Last Will does not comply with the state’s estate laws, the Last Will may have technical issues rendering it invalid. When this occurs, it is as if there were no Last Will at all and the estate is distributed according to the laws of the state.

The biggest red flag is the presence of any large changes from the next to Last Will to the final Last Will, with no known reason for the change having been made. This may be a result of changes to mental capacity or undue influence of a third party. An experienced estate planning attorney is the best resource to create a Last Will. They will be among the first to ask why significant changes from a prior Last Will are being requested. Don’t allow mistakes to jeopardize your wishes and lead to an invalid will. If you would like to learn more about drafting a will, please visit our previous posts.

Reference: The National Law Journal (March 30, 2022) “Red Flags Indicating a Potentially Invalid Will”

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Documents you can use to Plan for Incapacity

Documents you can use to Plan for Incapacity

There are a number of factors, such as illness or disability, that can cause someone to become incapacitated. You need to have a plan should the unthinkable happen. There are documents you can use to plan for incapacity. The chief reason for a Power of Attorney (POA) is to appoint an agent who can make decisions about business and financial matters if you become incapacitated, according to an article “Estate planning in case of incapacity” from The Sentinel-Record. For most people, the POA becomes effective at a later date, when the person signs a written authorization to act under the document, or when the person is determined to be incapacitated. This often involves having the person’s treating physician sign a notarized statement declaring the person to be incapacitated. This type of POA is referred to as a “Springing POA,” since it springs from a future event.

The challenge with a springing POA is that it requires reaching a point in the person’s life where it is clinically clear they are incapacitated. If the person has not yet been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, but it is making poor decisions or not able to care for themselves, it becomes necessary to go through the process of documenting their incapacity and going through the state’s process to activate the POA.

For a more immediate POA, your estate planning attorney may recommend creating and signing a Durable Power of Attorney. This allows you to appoint someone to manage personal and business affairs immediately. For this reason, it is extremely important that the person you name be 100% trustworthy, since they will have instant legal access to all of your property.

A Power of Attorney can be customized to include broad powers or limited to a specific transaction, like selling your home.

This is not the only way to allow another person to take over your affairs in the event of incapacity.  However, it is easier than seeking guardianship or conservatorship. Another method is to place assets in a revocable trust, which allows you to maintain control of the assets while alive and of legal capacity. The trust includes a successor trustee, who takes over in the event you become incapacitated or die.

The successor trustee only has control of the assets owned by the trust, so if the purpose of the trust is planning for incapacity, many, if not all, of your assets will need to be retitled and put into the trust.

A properly created estate plan will often use both the Durable Power of Attorney and a Revocable Living Trust, when preparing for incapacity.

Sadly, many people fail to have these legal tools created. As a result, when they are incapacitated, the family must go to court to have a person appointed to manage their affairs. This is usually referred to as a “legal guardianship.” The proceeding to obtain a guardianship is lengthy and complicated. Once the guardianship is established, the guardian must file annual accountings with the court documenting how all of the funds are used. The guardian must also post a surety bond, designed to protect assets in case of improper use.

Guardianship and its costs and time-consuming tasks can all be avoided with a properly prepared estate plan, including planning for incapacity. Whether it be a POA, guardianship or conservatorship, make sure you plan to have documents prepared to use in case of incapacity. If you would like to learn more about POA and other incapacity documents, please visit our previous posts.

Reference: The Sentinel-Record (March 27, 2022) “Estate planning in case of incapacity”

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Several Ways to Avoid Probate

Several Ways to Avoid Probate

Probate can tie up the estate for months and be an added expense. It can be a financial and emotional nightmare if you have not planned ahead. Some states have a streamlined process for less valuable estates, but probate still has delays, extra expense and work for the estate administrator. A probated estate is also a public record anyone can review. There are, however, several ways to avoid probate.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “7 Ways To Avoid Probate Without A Living Trust” says that avoiding probate often is a big estate planning goal. You can structure the estate so that all or most of it passes to your loved ones without this process.

A living trust is the most well-known way to avoid probate. However, retirement accounts, such as IRAs and 401(k)s, avoid probate. The beneficiary designation on file with the account administrator or trustee determines who inherits them. Likewise, life insurance benefits and annuities are distributed to the beneficiaries named in the contract.

Joint accounts and joint title are ways to avoid probate. Married couples can own real estate or financial accounts through joint tenancy with right of survivorship. The surviving spouse automatically takes full title after the other spouse passes away. Non-spouses also can establish joint title, like when a senior creates a joint account with an adult child at a financial institution. The child will automatically inherit the account when the parent passes away without probate. If the parent cannot manage his or her affairs at some point, the child can manage the finances without the need for a power of attorney.

Note that all joint owners have equal rights to the property. A joint owner can take withdrawals without the consent of the other. Once joint title is established you cannot sell, give or dispose of the property without the consent of the other joint owner.

A transfer on death provision (TOD) is another vehicle to avoid probate. You might come across the traditional term Totten trust, which is another name for a TOD or POD account (but there is no trust involved). After the original owner passes away, the TOD account is transferred to the beneficiary or changed to his or her name, once the financial institution gets the death certificate.

You can name multiple beneficiaries and specify the percentage of the account each will inherit. However, beneficiaries under a TOD have no rights in or access to the account while the owner is alive. An estate planning attorney will be able to identify several ways for you to avoid a costly probate. If you would like to read more about probate, please visit our previous posts.

Reference: Forbes (March 28, 2022) “7 Ways To Avoid Probate Without A Living Trust”

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how to obtain a power of attorney for your parent

How to Obtain Power of Attorney for your Parent?

Since the beginning of the COVID 19 pandemic, people have become more aware of the need for a power of attorney should one become incapacitated. But it begs the question: how to obtain a power of attorney for your parent? Tyron Daily Bulletin’s recent article entitled “How to get power of attorney for a loved one” says the person granting you that power, known as the “principal,” must designate you as the agent (also known as attorney in fact) to have the powers specified in the POA document. it must be signed by the principal while he or she is sound of mind.

Talk to an elder law attorney so understand what your state laws say about powers of attorney. Note that you cannot get a POA if someone is already incapacitated because the principal of the POA must be able to sufficiently comprehend what a POA document represents and the effects of signing it. He or she must clearly communicate their intentions.

The agent of a POA must always act in the best interests of the principal. This can include managing the principal’s financial interests or overseeing the principal’s healthcare and may make decisions about their care and treatment.

There are several things as POA that you cannot do:

  • Create a contract to get paid for personal services provided to the principal
  • Vote in place of the principal
  • Create or alter the principal’s will
  • Designate another as the agent on behalf of the principal; and
  • Do anything that is not in the principal’s best interests.

Even if the principal is in good health now, it is smart to plan for potential challenges. You never know when an injury or illness may take away that person’s capacity to manage finances or make important decisions about medical care. The most opportune time to start considering power of attorney is before a parent or loved one requires any caregiving.

Talk with an elder law attorney about how to obtain a power of attorney for your parent. Remember, the principal must be part of the conversation and cannot be mentally incapacitated. If you would like to read more about powers of attorney, please visit our previous posts.

Reference: Tyron Daily Bulletin (March 7, 2022) “How to get power of attorney for a loved one”

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A second marriage can complicated estate planning

A Second Marriage can complicate Estate Planning

In first marriages, working together to raise children can solidify a marriage. However, in a second marriage, the adult children are in a different position altogether. If important estate planning issues are not addressed, the relationship between the siblings and the new spouses can have serious consequences, according to a recent article titled “Into the Breach; Getting Married Again?” from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A second marriage can complicated estate planning.

Chief among the issues center on inheritances and financial matters, especially if one of the parties has the bulk of the income and the assets. How will the household expenses be shared? Should they be divided equally, even if one spouse has a significantly higher income than the other?

Other concerns involve real estate. If both parties own their own homes, in which house will they live? Will the other home be used for rental income or sold? Will both names be on the title for the primary residence?

Planning for incapacity also becomes more complex. If a 90-year-old man marries a 79-year-old woman, will his children or his spouse be named as agents (i.e., attorneys in fact) under his Power of Attorney if he is incapacitated? Who will make healthcare decisions for the 79-year-old spouse—her children or her 90-year-old husband?

There are so many different situations and family dynamics to consider. Will a stepdaughter end up making the decision to withdraw artificial feeding for an elderly stepmother, if the stepmother’s own children cannot be reached in a timely manner? If stepsiblings do not get along and critical decisions need to be made, can they set aside their differences to act in their collective parent’s best interests?

The matter of inheritances for second and subsequent marriages often becomes the pivot point for family discord. If the family has not had an estate plan created with an experienced estate planning attorney who understands the complexities of multiple marriages, then the battles between stepchildren can become nasty and expensive.

Do not discount the impact of the spouses of adult children. If you have a stepchild whose partner feels they have been wronged by the parent, they could bring a world of trouble to an otherwise amicable group.

The attorney may recommend the use of trusts to ensure the assets of the first spouse to die eventually make their way to their own children, while ensuring the surviving spouse has income during their lifetime. There are several trusts designed to accomplish this exact scenario, including one known as SLAT—Spousal Lifetime Access Trust.

Discussions about health care proxies and power of attorney should take place well before they are needed. Ideally, all members of the family can gather peacefully for discussions while their parents are living, to avoid surprises. If the relationships are rocky, a group discussion may not be possible and parents and adult children may need to meet for one-on-one discussions. However, the conversations still need to take place.

A second marriage can complicated estate planning. Second marriages at any age and stage need to have a prenuptial and an estate plan in place before the couple walks down the aisle to say, “I do…again.” If you would like to learn more about blended families and estate planning, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (March 1, 2022) “Into the Breach; Getting Married Again?”

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Caring for sick Parent can be Challenging

Caring for sick Parent can be Challenging

Caring for a sick parent can be challenging and emotional time. It’s not uncommon for adult children to have to face a parent’s decline and a stay in hospice at the end of their life. The children are tasked with trying to prepare for his passing. This includes how to handle his financial matters.

Seniors Matter’s recent article entitled “How do I handle my father’s financial matters now that he’s in hospice?” says that because of this major task, it is easy to put financial considerations on the back burner. Nonetheless, it is important to address a few key issues with your family.

If a family member is terminally ill or admitted to hospice – and you are able to do so – it may be a good idea to start by helping to take inventory of your family member’s assets and liabilities. A clear idea of where their assets are and what they have is a great starting point to help you prepare and be in a better position to manage the estate.

An inventory may include any and all of the following:

  • Real estate
  • Bank accounts
  • Cars, boats and other vehicles
  • Stocks and bonds
  • Life insurance
  • Retirement plans (such as a 401(k), a traditional IRA, a Roth IRA and a SEP IRA);
  • Wages and other income
  • Business interests
  • Intellectual property; and
  • Any debts, liabilities and judgments.

Next, find out what, if any, estate planning documents may be in place. This includes a will, powers of attorney, trusts, a healthcare directive and a living will. You will need to find copies.

Caring for a sick parent while also managing their financial affairs can be challenging, but it can make the aftermath easier and less stressful for you and your family. If you are interested in reading more about elder care issues, please visit our previous posts.

Reference: Seniors Matter (Feb. 22, 2022) “How do I handle my father’s financial matters now that he’s in hospice?”

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Why You should review Estate Planning

Why You should review Estate Planning

There is a line from John Lennon that states, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” This is especially true when reviewing your estate planning. Maybe your estate plan was created when you were single, and there have been some significant changes in your life. Perhaps you got married or divorced. You also may now be on better terms with children with whom you were once estranged. This is why you should periodically review your estate planning to ensure they are accurate and up-to-date.

Tax and estate laws can also change over time, requiring further updates to your planning documents.

WMUR’s recent article entitled “The ‘final’ estate-planning step” reminds us that change is a constant thing. With that in mind, here are some key indicators that a review is in order.

  • The value of your estate has changed dramatically
  • You or your spouse changed jobs
  • Changes to your income level or income needs
  • You are retiring and no longer working
  • There is a divorce or marriage in your family
  • There is a new child or grandchild
  • There is a death in the family
  • You (or a close family member) have become ill or incapacitated
  • Your parents have become dependent on you
  • You have formed, purchased, or sold a business;
  • You make significant financial transactions, such as substantial gifts, borrowing or lending money, or purchasing, leasing, or selling assets or investments
  • You have moved
  • You have purchased a vacation home or other property in another state
  • A designated trustee, executor, or guardian dies or changes his or her mind about serving; and
  • You are making changes in your insurance coverage.

Your should review your estate planning after every major change of life. Sit down with your estate planning attorney and take the time to review your planning. If you would like to read more about making changes to your estate planning, please visit our previous posts.

Reference: WMUR (Feb. 3, 2022) “The ‘final’ estate-planning step”

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Naming Power of Attorney is extremely important

Naming Power of Attorney is extremely important

Naming a person to serve as your Power of Attorney is an extremely important part of your estate plan, although it is often treated like an afterthought once the will and trust documents are completed. Naming a POA needs to be given the same serious consideration as creating a will, as discussed in this recent article “Avoid powers of attorney mistakes” from Medical Economics.

Choosing the wrong person to act on your behalf as your Power of Attorney (POA) could lead to a host of unintended consequences, leading to financial disaster. If the same person has been named your POA for healthcare, you and your family could be looking at a double-disaster. What’s more, if the same person is also a beneficiary, the potential for conflict and self-dealing gets even worse.

The Power of Attorney is a fiduciary, meaning they are required to put your interests and the interest of the estate ahead of their own. To select a POA to manage your financial life, it should be someone who you trust will always put your interests first, is good at managing money and has a track record of being responsible. Spouses are typically chosen for POAs, but if your spouse is poor at money management, or if your marriage is new or on shaky ground, it may be better to consider an alternate person.

If the wrong person is named a POA, a self-dealing agent could change beneficiaries, redirect portfolio income to themselves, or completely undo your investment portfolio.

The person you name as a healthcare POA could protect the quality of your life and ensure that your remaining years are spent with good care and in comfort. However, the opposite could also occur. Your healthcare POA is responsible for arranging for your healthcare. If the healthcare POA is a beneficiary, could they hasten your demise by choosing a substandard nursing facility or failing to take you to medical appointments to get their inheritance? It has happened.

Most POAs, both healthcare and financial, are not evil characters like we see in the movies, but often incompetence alone can lead to a negative outcome.

How can you protect yourself? First, know what you are empowering your POAs to do. A boilerplate POA limits your ability to make decisions about who may do what tasks on your behalf. Work with your estate planning attorney to create a POA for your needs. Do you want one person to manage your day-to-day personal finances, while another is in charge of your investment portfolio? Perhaps you want a third person to be in charge of selling your home and distributing your personal possessions, if you have to move into a nursing home.

If someone, a family member, or a spouse, simply presents you with POA documents and demands you sign them, be suspicious. Your POA should be created by you and your estate planning attorney to achieve your wishes for care in case of incapacity.

Different grown children might do better with different tasks. If your trusted, beloved daughter is a nurse, she may be in a better position to manage your healthcare than another sibling. If you have two adult children who work together well and are respected and trusted, you might want to make them co-agents to take care of you.

Naming a Power of Attorney is an extremely important part of your estate plan. Your estate planning attorney has seen all kinds of family situations concerning POAs for finances and healthcare. Ask their advice and don’t hesitate to share your concerns. They will be able to help you come up with a solution to protect you, your estate and your family. If you would like to read more about how powers of attorney work, please visit our previous posts.

Reference: Medical Economics (Feb. 3, 2022) “Avoid powers of attorney mistakes”

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When does someone need a guardian?

When Does Someone Need a Guardian?

When does someone need a guardian? When a person is legally deemed incapable of managing their own affairs and has not named a financial power of attorney to do so, a guardian or conservator may be needed. A family member may be appointed to the task, as explained in a recent article “What to Do When a Family Member Needs a Guardian” from Kiplinger.

Guardians are usually responsible for personal affairs, while a conservator is generally limited to financial matters. These terms vary by state, so ask the estate planning attorney which ones are most appropriate for your situation. In many cases, one person takes on both roles.

The control over another person’s life and money has been in the news a lot lately. The years-long battle between Brittney Spears and her father showed how things can go wrong, as did the movie “I Care a Lot,” about a professional guardian who steals life savings from elderly people.

It is better for an adult child to care for a parent through the use of Power of Attorney and Healthcare Power of Attorney than having to go to court to gain control through a guardianship. Having these documents prepared while the person still has legal capacity to execute them is far easier and less costly. Guardianship and conservatorship are last resorts when no prior planning has been done.

How does it work? Rules vary from state to state, but generally, a person—referred to as the petitioner—files a petition with a local court to seek guardianship. A judge holds a hearing to determine whether the person in question, known as the respondent, meets the state’s standards for needing a guardian. The respondent has a right to have an attorney represent them, if they do not feel they need or want to have a guardian.

Guardianship does more than give another person the right to make financial decisions for another person. Under guardianship, a person may lose the right to vote, marry, travel, or make certain medical decisions. Courts are often reluctant to take away all of these rights. In many states, courts are allowed to limit the guardian’s authority to managing bills and maintaining a home.

The least intrusive option is preferable, which would be using the Power of Attorney and Health Care Power of Attorney in the first place.

Another point—most courts will not grant a guardianship, if a person is physically disabled but mentally sharp. Making bad decisions, like handling money irresponsibly, or keeping company with people who are potentially preying on a senior, is not enough reason to put someone under guardianship. You cannot always protect someone from themselves.

However, the need for guardianship is clear if a person has suffered a stroke and is in a coma or is suffering from dementia. Other reasons are severe depression where a person cannot function or delirium, when a person is unaware of their environment and confused by everything around them. Delusional disorders are also reasons for guardianship.

When the person meets the standard of need, the courts typically prefer to appoint a family member. However, if there is no appropriate person, a public guardian paid by the state or a professional guardian paid by the family can be appointed.

Filing a guardianship petition can cost thousands of dollars, and a professional guardian can charge upwards of $250 an hour. Most guardians are well meaning, but often run into conflicts with family members. The guardian’s job is to protect the person, not serve the interest of the family. If the family’s sole interest is in protecting their inheritance, the guardian can find themselves in a difficult situation.

Family members serving as guardians can also find themselves in difficult situations. The guardian, whether a professional or family member, must keep meticulous records of any monies spent and the tasks performed on behalf of the person.

The process of determining when someone needs a guardian is complicated and time consuming. The best solution is to prepare in advance with a Power of Attorney, Healthcare Power of Attorney and all of the estate planning documents needed so the family can act without court intervention, the costs of applying for guardianship and the possibility of a professional guardian being appointed. If you would like to read more about guardianship, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: Kiplinger (Jan. 25, 2022) “What to Do When a Family Member Needs a Guardian”

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Letter of Instruction is Resource for Executors

Letter of Instruction is Resource for Executors

A letter of intent is frequently recommended for parents of disabled children to share information for when the parent dies. However, a letter of intent, or a letter of instruction, is also a helpful resource for executors, says the article “Planning Ahead: For detailed instructions consider a letter of instruction” from The Mercury. This is especially valuable, if the executor doesn’t know the decedent or their family members very well.

For disabled children, legal documents address specific issues and aren’t necessarily the right place to include personal information about the child or the parent’s desires for the child’s future. Estate plans need more information, especially for a minor child.

The goal is to create a document to make clear what the parents want for the child after they pass, whether that occurs early or late in the child’s life.

For a disabled child, the first questions to be addressed in the estate plan concern who will care for the child if the parent dies or becomes incapacitated, where will the child live and what funds will be available for their care. Once those matters are resolved, however, there are more questions about the child’s wants and needs.

The letter of intent can answer questions about the special information only a parent knows and is helpful in future decisions about their care and living situation.

The letter of intent concerning an estate should also include information about wishes for a funeral or burial and contain everything from directions for the music list for a ceremony to the writing on the headstone.

Once the letter of intent is created, the next question is, where should you put it so it is secure and can be accessed when it is needed?

Don’t put it in a bank safe deposit box. This is a common error for estate planning documents as well. The executor may only access the contents of the safe deposit box after letters of administration have been issued. This happens after the funeral, and sometimes long after the funeral. By then, it will be too late for any instructions.

Keeping estate planning documents in a safe deposit box presents other problems. If the bank seals the safe deposit box on notification of the owner’s death, the executor won’t be able to proceed. This can sometimes be prevented by having additional owners on the safe deposit box, if permitted by the bank . Any additional owners will also need to know where the key is located and be able get access to it.

The better solution is to keep all important documents including wills, financial power of attorney, health care powers, letter of intent, living wills, or health care directives, insurance forms, cemetery deeds, information for the family’s estate planning attorney, financial advisor, and CPA, etc., in one location known to the trusted person who will need access to the documents. That person will need a set of keys to the house. If they are kept in a fire and waterproof safe in the house; they will also need the keys to the safe.

If the parents move or move the documents, they’ll need to remember to tell the trusted person where these documents have moved., Otherwise, a lot of work will have been for naught. A letter of instruction can be an enormous resource for executors looking to fulfill your wishes. Work with an experienced estate planning attorney to include one in your planning. If you would like to learn more about letters of instruction, please visit our previous posts.

Reference: The Mercury (Jan. 19, 2022) “Planning Ahead: For detailed instructions consider a letter of instruction”

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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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