book club june

Spread out your beach towel (even if it’s just in your own backyard) and crack open this month’s GoFisch Book Club pick: The Bettencourt Affair, by Tom Sancton.

Bettencourt Affair book cover

The book takes its readers on twists and turns through an all too real French soap opera of the rich, powerful, and famous. Its characters including Liliane Bettencourt, one of the richest women in the world and heiress to the L’Oreal cosmetics fortune; former President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy; an intriguing (or scam) artist; a worried (or jealous) daughter; and a whole slew of lawyers, judges, and other professionals wrapped into the web this story weaves. There’s also some interesting WWII back story that comes into play as well as political payoffs and quid pro quo. It’s a quick read and sumptuous in the surrounding luxury of private jets, islands, and Swiss bank accounts. Yet, entirely sobering when remembering that all this wealth caused the emotional heartache, numerous lawsuits, and ruined careers in its wake.

GoFisch Book Club Flyer

 

Why is this the GoFisch book club pick of the month? Despite its tabloid-esque plot, legal aspects of estate planning are plentiful throughout the life and times of the players with multiple types of trusts, a will that’s being constantly updated, transfer of long-term capital assets, questions of testator incapacitation, multiple conflicts of interest, and impressive charitable giving tools and tactics.

One of the central questions asked throughout the legal battle that ensues throughout the latter half of the 416 pages is: did one man (François-Marie Banier) take advantage of a wealthy old woman or was he simply the supportive friend and recipient of numerous unsolicited gifts. In this course of all of this, multiple other advisors, employees, and politicians get implicated in “l’affaire Bettencourt” as the courts question who did and did not unduly benefit from Bettencourt’s supposed generosity, and who may or may not have had unethical influence over her decisions. The answers to these are answered in part from the decisions of the courts, but

Also, for anyone interested in the legal systems of other countries The Bettencourt Affair offers a sort of crash course on explaining how France’s judiciary operates and how it.

As you’re reading this book consider the estate planning-related questions:

  1. What role did estate planning play in the Bettencourt Affair?
  2. Do you think Liliane Bettencourt;s estate was taken advantage of and if so, by whom?
  3. Do you believe Liliane Bettencourt was of sound mind and body in order to make the financial decisions and gifts she did? What characteristics come into play when proving incapacitation and need for guardianship or conservatorship?
  4. Just for fun…if you had the kind of wealth that the Bettencourts did, what kind of trusts would form and who would the trusts benefit? What organizations would you like to benefit from your tax-wise philanthropic efforts?
  5. What are your thoughts on the French judicial system as exemplified through this book? How does it compare to the U.S. for both the better and the worse?

It’s worth noting here that there almost an endless number of different types of trusts and an adept estate planning attorney can help their clients form a trust that fits with their estate planning, financial, and charitable giving goals.

 

coffee-book-table-word-nerd

It’s also important to remember that trusts are certainly not just for the wealthy. Indeed many regular folks like you and I can stand to benefit from creating different types of trusts. After (or before) you dive into this GoFisch Book Club pick for the month, don’t hesitate to contact Gordon Fischer Law Firm with your trust-related questions or for a consultation if a trust fits your individual needs.

Leave your thoughts on the book in the comments below and let us know if you have any estate planning or nonprofit-related book picks for the upcoming months!

table with book and tea

Often when I’m reading fiction I’ll find estate planning-related issues that cause conflicts, both big and small, for the characters. And, while the stories may be fictitious, the lessons they give us serve as valuable reminders of the importance of quality estate planning.

One such tale I recently revisited is the 1845 gothic novel, Wuthering Heights, in which author Emily Brontë swiftly weaves in ample estate planning issues with English family drama worthy of the Kardashians.

While many estate planning laws and practices have evolved and changed since the mid-1800s, many also have not. Indeed, the outcome of failing to create a valid, quality estate plan certainly has not.

All in the Family

Wuthering Heights twists and turns with love, revenge, birth, and death spanning some thirty-something years from the late 1700s to 1803. Among many other plot devices, conflict rests on the real property (named Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange) that a man named Heathcliff comes to in possession of through a number of different property rights and inheritance laws. In this way English common law has its own sort of starring role in the book, a character for which Bronte shows an impressive grasp of.

Of course, I don’t want to spoil the book because it’s a classic and you should enjoy the experience of exploring it yourself. So, without any spoilers there’s a lot of family conflict and one of the characters (Heathcliff) taking vengeful advantage of a number of unfair laws (especially those discriminating against women) of the time to gain property and power over his siblings. What were these unjust laws you ask? For one, married women couldn’t legally own property in England during this period. Additionally, inheritances generally passed to sons only. (If a father did not have sons and did not specifically name a daughter as a beneficiary, the father’s closest male relative would usually become the heir to the father’s estate.)

Yet, the irony of Heathcliff’s unyielding (and suspect) property acquisition is that in the end, he failed to make an estate plan and therefore failed to seize his opportunity to decide to whom and when he wants his things to pass. Apparently, he had thought about it, but likely did what so many of us do and made excuses and put it off until it was tragically too late. (Again, no spoilers, but Heathcliff’s ending is no fairytale.)

English moors

First Wuthering Heights Lesson: Stop the Procrastination

This brings us to our first important Wuthering Heights estate planning lesson: make an estate plan. Seriously, every adult needs an estate plan, as you never know when unexpected death or incapacitation may occur. For instance, you’ll want to have a health care power of attorney in place before a medical emergency occurs. And if/when it does, you’ll want your assets to go to the beneficiaries of your choosing. Having a valid estate plan in place also saves your loved ones ample time, energy, and money in court costs and lawyers’ fees.

What Happened to the Estate

Because Heathcliff lived in 19th century England, without a valid will in place at the time of his death and without a clear heir at law or living spouse, Heathcliff’s property was “escheat,” a common law doctrine that made sure property was not in limbo without a recognized owner. This meant the property passed to the “Crown” (basically whomever the feudal lord of the area was, or in modern day it would be as if the property was held by the state) and then eventually passed to Heathcliff’s next generation of family members. Now, Heathcliff, given his history with his family, may not have chosen for his unqualified nephew (and niece) to inherit his property. Heathcliff may have wanted to make charitable bequests of his property to a charitable organization he supported. But, the fact of the matter is he didn’t have a will, let alone an estate plan, so then inheritance laws and the judicial system made these personal decisions for him.

As an estate planning attorney, I can assure you this is not something that only happens in books. Without a valid will in place your estate will go through a process called intestate succession where the Iowa probate process and the courts will decide how your hard-earned property is to be distributed. This can take a long time, cost a great deal in fees and court costs, and your property may end up transferred to beneficiaries you never would have selected. Plus, without an estate plan, you cannot give upon your death to charity.

Second Wuthering Heights Lesson: Intestate Succession

Dying in Iowa without an estate plan is different than dying in 1800s England, but what does the intestate succession process actually look like?

It depends on the family situation. If married, the estate will pass to the surviving spouse. If there’s a surviving spouse and living children (whom are not children of the surviving spouse, but children of the deceased), then the estate will be split with half to the spouse and half divided amongst the living children (often referred to as “issue” in legal speak). If there is no spouse and no children, then the division process works its way down a list of surviving family members from parents, then to grandparents, then great-grandparents…and if no one from that list is alive than the estate would pass to the deceased spouse’s issue (such as stepchildren). Finally, if there are no family members living to inherit the estate, the intestate property will escheat (remember when we talked about that before) to the state of Iowa.

Assets that are inherited via beneficiary designations (such as 401ks, IRAs, annuities, checking accounts, and pensions) only become the property of the probate estate and pass through the intestate succession process if no beneficiary is named.

Note well that these highlighted provisions are just the basics. Other statutes come into play with the intestate process pertaining various personal and financial situations.

Just as enlisting an attorney to help you craft a quality, individualized estate plan, it’s important that an attorney be brought on by the surviving family of the person dying intestate in working out how property will be divided.

books sign

Write Your Plan Before “The End”

The bottom line is: don’t be Heathcliff. Every adult (even young adults, and especially adults with minor children) needs to make an estate plan. Not only will this help your family avoid the worst-case scenario of litigation, it will also allow you the benefit of determining who you want inheriting your estate and when. You shouldn’t rely on the rules of intestate succession for dispersal of all the assets you acquired over the course of a life.

Lucky for you, it’s even easier to make an estate plan than it was back in the time of Wuthering Heights. Get started with my Estate Plan Questionnaire or contact me with questions about your individual situation.

Happy Read Across America Day! Coinciding with Dr. Seuss’ birthday, the “holiday” encourages kids to get excited about reading and read more books. Created by the National Educational Association and first celebrated in 1998, the day is marked by reading events at libraries, bookstores, and schools, among other community spots, to celebrate the joy of reading.

While the day was originally intended for school children, I like to celebrate it by taking some time out from legal work and curl up with any one of the good books that have been piling up on my bookshelf begging to be read. As an attorney, reading is a regular part of my work, but unfortunately reading State of Iowa code just isn’t the same experience in the way that a fiction adventure sucks you in or a nonfiction account expands your world. On top of that, I enjoy book clubs (and have tried my fair share of them), but it’s hard to be a steady, regular attendee at a book club! Life happens, work happens, and before you know it, you’re the person pretending to have read the book and adding little to the discussion…

GoFisch Book Club Flyer

That’s why I’m starting the GoFisch book club! Just like Read Across America Day is about getting students excited about reading, I want this club to get Iowans excited about different aspects of charitable giving, estate planning, and nonprofits. The titles chosen will be in some way or another related back to Gordon Fischer Law Firm’s core services, but they’ll be books you would want to read to learn and grow from regardless. Plus, you’ll never have to clean the house in order to host, make treats, or worry about being on time! Sounds good right? (Of course, you’re more than welcome to make treats to eat while you read and share your opinions on the book!)

So, if there are no meetings, how does a digital book club like this work?

Three months of book selections will be listed at all times. So, today the titles for this month, April, and May will be available. (See below.) June’s title will be announced in April and so on. This way you can read ahead, or pick and choose which titles you wish to read.

At the beginning of each month an intro to the book will be posted. All readers are invited to post their own discussion questions in the comments for me and all other readers to consider as we read the book together. At the end of the month I’ll post a follow-up with some discussion questions (including those posed by readers in the comments) and corresponding thoughts; all readers can add to the discussion in the comments. Simple enough. Two posts: one at the beginning of the month introducing the book and one at the end with questions and thoughts. Suggestions for discussion questions and future books are HIGHLY encouraged.

March GoFisch Book Club Pick

What’s the first read to kick the GoFisch book club off? Drumroll please… The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter.

It seems to me that with words like “hygge” all over Instagram, natural materials integrated into interior design, and “lagom” as a philosophic life approach, borrowing life tips for the Scandinavians is all the rage as of the past few years. I don’t see why “death cleaning” would be any different—taking smart, practical steps in preparation for something that will inevitably happen to us all. Without a doubt this book ties in with estate planning as a complementary, future-focused action you may take during life to prepare your loved ones for your death. 

Written by the artist Margareta Magnusson, the book explores the Swedish practice of döstädning, the practice of taking stock and clearing out any unnecessary stuff before others have to do it for you. It’s minimalistic in theory and extremely considerate to your family and friends in practice. At a short and sweet 128 pages, the text is a quick read with a healthy dose of humor and wisdom sprinkled throughout the guide.

Magnusson’s approach also encourages you to begin the sometimes difficult or sensitive conversations around death with family members. Ultimately, the author wants to help her readers take the question “will anyone I know be happier if I save this” and apply it to a process that’s uplifting, rather than depressing or overwhelming.

How you acquire the book is up to you. You could check the book out from your local library, read it on your Kindle or tablet, or buy a nice hardcover addition for your reading nook.

April & May Book Picks

After you get schooled on how to prep for death like a Swede, dive into the following reads:

Calling all Bibliophiles: Make a Book Club Suggestion

What books would you like the GoFisch book club to read beginning in June? Add your book suggestions (along with any discussion questions) to your comments below. You can also share your thoughts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram with the tag, #GoFischbookclub.