give thanks table with autumn leaves

Thanksgiving weekend is chock full of traditions for families from parade watching and football playing to pie eating and Black Friday shopping. One less obvious activity you should add to the weekend roster is a discussion on estate planning. America’s second favorite holiday, where family and friends come together from near and far, to eat good food and spend quality time together is a prime opportunity to make sure your loved ones have a plan for the future in the case of unexpected death or incapacitation.

thanksgiving table

Now, I don’t recommend questioning your uncle if he has a living will over the turkey table. But, after the food coma wears off, gather your loved ones around in a comfortable spot and strike up a conversation about how estate planning is important for everyone. That includes your brother who has young kids, your mom who donates regularly to the local food bank, and even your cousins who are obsessed with their dogs…there’s a place in estate planning for all of them. Here are a couple tips to make the discussion a success as great as pumpkin pie.

Give the Best Advice at the Table

No one around the family table should be to disclose who they have named as heirs. That could be awkward depending on who’s in the room. (However, discussing your donative intentions should happen privately with beneficiaries and fiduciaries included in your estate plan.) But, you should pass along the great advice that estate plans should be reviewed at least annually and always after a major life event like a birth, death, marriage, divorce, or moving across state lines.

Explain Why Estate Planning is Essential

The benefits of estate planning are numerous and estate planning can be tailored to meet each individual’s unique needs and goals. But, you don’t have to get too into the weeds. Leave that part to the estate planner who’s job it is!

If anyone needs convincing to get started on their estate plan ASAP, simply explain that estate planning is an opportunity to take action as opposed to passing the burden to family members to figure out what to do with their stuff, how to access important accounts/information, and slog through the tedious intestate probate process. Estate planning can create chaos and even incite litigation between heirs over the deceased’s estate. Just like Thanksgiving traditions create a lasting memory, estate planning is your opportunity to leave a lasting legacy.

Offer to Help

Estate planning can sound intimidating to someone who’s never gone through the steps before. Offer to help by recommending an experienced estate planning attorney they can trust.

Pass Along Something Tangible

Want to pass along something beyond just words? You can also share this handy dandy checklist and free, no-obligation Estate Plan Questionnaire.

thanksgiving table

Encouraging all the people you care about to articulate their wishes is truly something to be thankful for! If you or any of your loved ones want more information feel free to contact GFLF for a complimentary consult.

Gordon Fischer at desk

How much does an estate plan cost? It’s an important question that you’ll rarely get a straight answer to. Fortunately, you can easily find the answer (specific to my services) here on this rate sheet.

All parties benefit from transparent information regarding costs. You’re writing an estate plan so there are no surprises regarding your assets after death. Certainly, the last thing you want is to be surprised at the cost of estate planning documents while you’re living!

Cost of an estate plan as an issue

When I talk with folks who want to complete an estate plan, but are procrastinating, a common concern that comes up is cost. People are concerned (and rightly so) about how much money they must fork over for an estate plan. So, no matter what lawyer you hire to draft or update your estate plan (and you do indeed need a lawyer to have this done right) make sure they’re completely upfront with you about what it will cost.

One Size Does NOT Fit All

There is no such thing as a “one-size-fits-all” estate plan. Estate plans—their terms, coverage, ins, and outs—depend on a myriad of individual circumstances and indeed preferences.

clothes on hanger

This is why filling out an Estate Plan Questionnaire (EPQ) is such an important first step. You can gather the important and relevant information, all in one place, and think through some of the decisions you must make when building your estate plan. Plus, I can see from your EPQ what you might want and need to meet your planning goals. Once you complete the EPQ, you and I meet for a free one-hour consultation.

Let’s Talk About Your EPQ

In the free, one-hour consultation, we’ll talk about your estate planning situation I usually meet clients in my office, but I’ve also met folks at coffee shops, restaurants, hospitals, and their houses. (I do make house calls!) Regardless of place, we’ll walk through your EPQ and I’ll listen carefully as you describe your intentions. I’ll answer your questions and address your concerns. Once we are both satisfied understand each other, I’ll give you my estate planning recommendations. I’ll tell you in plain language what I think you need and why I think you need it. I’ll also tell you the exact cost. As you can see from my fee schedule above, I use a flat fee approach. So, you’ll get a 100% reliable figure.

Only Then, My Bill

It is important to note I don’t bill you until the end of this process. Only once you have a fully executed estate plan (i.e., signed, notarized, witnessed), only then will I provide you my bill for services. And again, because I work on a flat fee basis, the bill will exactly match the figure I provided you earlier. Some clients write a check on the spot, and we’re done. Other folks want to pay along with all their other bills, so they pay me later. You may take the estate plan documents without paying. I trust you’ll pay me.

change and wallet on table

So, now the cost of an estate plan has been demystified, why not take control of your future and set your family and friends up for a smooth transition of all your assets in the case of illness, incapacitation, or death? As stated before, a great place to get the ball rolling is with my free EPQ. Also, feel free to reach out at any time by email, gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com, or on my cell, 515-371-6077.

slayer rule

In honor of Halloween, I thought it appropriate to explain the ominous-sounding principle of the slayer rule. [Cue a full moon, bats, and a high-pitched cackle here.]

It’s a plot you may come across in murder novels or movies: someone kills someone else in order to inherit money, a house, artwork, or anything else of assumed value. Or, in some cases, the intent might not specifically be an inheritance, but nevertheless, the “slayer” will inherit as a result of the other’s death.

This scheme hits at very core of what most people think is unfair and unjust–why should someone who cuts another’s life short be entitled to benefit from their criminal act? This is why most states have adopted “slayer statutes.”

For example, Iowa adopted such a law (Iowa Code § 633.535) in 1987. It says primarily:

A person who intentionally and unjustifiably causes or procures the death of another shall not receive any property, benefit, or other interest by reason of the death as an heir, distributee, beneficiary, appointee, or in any other capacity whether the property, benefit, or other interest passed under any form of title registration, testamentary or nontestamentary instrument, intestacy, renunciation, or any other circumstance. The property, benefit, or other interest shall pass as if the person causing death died before the decedent.

Note that states differ as to specific provisions and different factors like considerations of an insanity defense, and whether or not a slayer’s heirs are also disinherited. The information in the blog post is meant to speak generally. For slayer rule specifics, it’s important to consult with an experienced attorney in the jurisdiction in question.

Main Principles of the Slayer Rule

Generally speaking, the principle of the rule is that an estate plan beneficiary cannot inherit any property, fiduciary appointment, or power of appointment from a testator who the beneficiary intentionally and feloniously kills. The rule also applies if the beneficiary kills someone else (besides the testator) who had to die before they could inherit. In the case of an estate planning document (like a will), the entire will is interpreted by the court as if the slayer died before the testator. (This causes the gifts to said slayer-beneficiary to lapse.)

What if there is no will? The slayer rule still applies. So in the case of non-probate transfers (like a trust or a checking account with a beneficiary designation) the slayer could not inherit. The same goes if the slayer is an heir at law set to inherit under the state’s intestacy laws.

What Kind of Killing Triggers the Slayer Rule?

Typically the killing must be: 1) intentional; 2) felonious; and 3) without legal justification, like valid self-defense. Murder and some forms of manslaughter (such as voluntary manslaughter) tend to fulfill these requirements. Negligent homicide and involuntary manslaughter typically won’t qualify, as the slayer lacks the required element of intent.

For example, let’s say Anna has a son named Billy. Anna’s husband (Billy’s father) had passed away previously and Billy was set to inherit his mother’s entire estate under her will. Billy loved his mom and liked to make sure she still got out and did fun things in her older age. One night Anna and Billy go out to dinner and order some wine. Billy drinks a bit too much, but because his mother’s eyesight is impaired, Billy still chooses to drive his mother home even though he’s impaired. The car crashes and Anna, unfortunately, dies as a result, but Billy lives. Even if drunk driving is a felony in the jurisdiction, Billy lacked the intent element as there’s no evidence that shows he intended to kill Anna. Thus, the slayer statute would not prohibit Billy from inheriting Anna’s estate.

Does There Have to be a Trial and a Conviction?

For the slayer rule to come into play, there doesn’t need to be a criminal trial or a criminal conviction. It is enough for a civil litigation court to find the slayer responsible for the other’s death by a preponderance of the evidence. Interestingly enough, even if an alleged slayer is acquitted of a crime, it does not stop the civil court from applying the slayer rule and barring the inheritance.

That said, if there is a final, unappealable criminal conviction finding the killing to be intentional and felonious, it would establish all the requirements of the slayer rule. There would be no other need for other proof because such a criminal conviction requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

 Smart Estate Planning 

Of course, the odds that the slayer rule will apply to most of our estates is (thankfully) extremely rare. But it’s analogous to a more common situation — the beneficiary dying before the testator. An issue that then complicates donative intent is if the testator fails to or doesn’t have time to update their estate plan and there’s no remainder (or back-up) beneficiary to inherit instead. When working with an experienced estate planner it’s a wise idea to name secondary beneficiaries, as well as “back-up” will executors or trust trustees. That way distribution or administration of your hard-earned assets is not left up to the court.

Questions about the slayer rule or other somewhat obscure estate planning laws? Need to get started on your estate plan? Don’t hesitate to contact me for a free consult!

goodbye blue

It’s the saddest day of the year. You all know what I am talking about: the last day of National Estate Planning Awareness Week.

Here in Iowa, the weather this weekend was bright and shiny in that perfect fall day kind of way. Almost as if the universe itself was celebrating NEPAW 2019.

All good things come to an end, we sure had fun, didn’t we? We took a deep dive into the history of estate planning itself. Estate planning, in some form or another, has been an important aspect of societies in the world for hundreds and hundreds of years. In almost every society folks wanted to pass along their assets to the people they care about and want to provide for.

We were reminded of the importance of powers of attorney. In particular, everyone should have a power of attorney for health care, a legal instrument that allows you to select the person that you want to make health care decisions for you, if and when you become unable to make such decisions for yourself.

We delved into a hypothetical situation that is fairly improbable (but it can and does happen) regarding the death of a buyer or seller during sales of real estate.

The ultimate estate planning checklist makes it easy to visualize your completion rate of the important documents and estate plan-related tasks. It’s an easy-to-read, handy dandy cheat sheet of items to accomplish to get you from zero to hero in the estate planning world.

While we’ll have to wait a whole year until the next National Estate Planning Awareness Week, let’s always choose to be aware of the importance of estate planning regardless of the day. With a quality estate plan crafted by an experienced lawyer, every single day of our lives can be like a day of National Estate Planning Awareness Week!

Here are three things you can do to keep the spirit of National Estate Planning Awareness Week alive regardless of the date on the calendar:

  1. If you don’t yet have an estate plan, get one. NOW. Filling out my Estate Plan Questionnaire is a great and easy way to start the process.
  2. Talk to your family, friends, colleagues, and others, about your own estate planning experiences. If it was easier and less expensive than you thought it might be, share that info. If having six basic documents, brought you great peace of mind, tell them so.
  3. Subscribe to my free e-newsletter, GoFisch, delivered to your inbox every month. It’s chock full of helpful information and may be the least boring legal newsletter ever.

I’d love to talk with you (even if you’re not as disappointed to see National Estate Planning Awareness Week pass as I am). Contact me by phone or email at any time to discuss your estate planning situation and goals.

Let’s set everything straight about all the benefits and important aspects of a health care power of attorney.

What is a health care power of attorney?

A health care power of attorney (“POA”) is a legal instrument that allows you to select the person (called an “agent”) that you want to make health care decisions for you, if and when you become unable to make such decisions for yourself.

healthcare power of attorney

What types of decisions can be made by a health care POA?

A health care POA can govern any decision related to your health that you want to address. A health care POA may include decisions related to organ donation, hospitalization, treatment in a nursing home, home health care, psychiatric treatment, end-of-life (i.e. the use of life support), and more.

When would I use a health care POA?

A health care POA is used when you become unable to make health care decisions for yourself. Your agent will be able to make decisions for you based on the information you provided in your health care POA. Equally important, your agent will be access your medical records, communicate with your health care providers, and so on.

doctor stethoscope

What happens if I don’t have a health care POA?

If you don’t have a health care POA, and you should become disabled to the point where you are unable to make health care decisions for yourself, the hospital will do everything possible to save your life.

Your family, without guidance from you, will be faced with agonizing decisions. Your family members may not be able to agree on how to handle your medical care. Or, you might disagree with the decision your family ultimately makes.

If your family can’t agree on a course of action, they would have to go to an Iowa Court and have a conservator/guardian appointed for you. It may, or may not, be someone you would have chosen. Further, the conservator/guardian may make decisions you wouldn’t have made.

This is all very complicated, time consuming, and expensive.  A health care POA simplifies this process by giving you control over how decisions are made for you and allowing you to choose who will carry out your wishes. Best of all, it leaves your family with peace of mind.

Is there a “one-size-fits-all” POA for health care?

No! All Iowans are special and unique, and so are each individual’s issues and concerns. Consequently, this article is presented for informational purposes only, not as legal advice. Please consult your lawyer for personal advice.

Do I need other estate planning documents in addition to a health care POA?

Yes, definitely! (It’s even essential for college students.) There are six “must-have” estate planning documents that make up a complete, comprehensive estate plan. (Plus some people may also need to consider a trust.)


Do you have a health care POA currently? And do you have a complete estate plan? Why or why not? I’d be most interested in any thoughts or comments. Email me anytime at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com or call 515-371-6077.

famous hat

It’s National Estate Planning Week and while it doesn’t involve costumes or gourds full of candy, celebrating can still be fun. Which brings us to these examples of “unique” (i.e. over the top, kooky, crazy, or weird) estate plan provisions of the rich and famous. In the past we’ve highlighted the unfortunate circumstances of celebrities who died without a valid estate plan dictating to whom they want their assets to go. The lesson there? Don’t leave it up to others what should happen with your property!

Today’s lesson? Your estate plan is unique and you can employ different planning strategies and tools to make whatever (legal) requests and bequests about your estate you wish…even if they’re a little different.

Gene Roddenberry, Creator of Star Trek

Roddenberry created the original Star Trek television series and was obsessed with space. So, it was actually fitting he requested a celestial burial. He passed away in 1991 and his request for a disposition of his final remains in deep space was fulfilled in 1997. Roddenberry was cremated and a part of his remains was put on a rocket and launched into orbit. His wife Majel, who played Christine Chapel in the original Star Trek and died in 2008, also elected for a space burial with the same company (Celetis).

Harry Houdini, Magician

Famous magician Houdini conducted séances during his life and wanted his wife, Bess, to continue the practice upon his own death. A clause in Houdini’s (otherwise “normal”) will requested his wife conduct an annual “session” with the afterlife. Houdini had his wife memorize a secret “code” that he thought would use identification to prove communication from the “other side.” She honored the request for 10 years on Halloween, the anniversary of her husband’s death.

magic in hand

Oprah, Media Mogul

Oprah is the living (thank goodness, let’s not imagine a world without Oprah in it) spokesperson of the benefits of an animal care trust! Reportedly, Oprah has established a trust funded with $30 million for her pet dogs, so that they will continue to have a high level of treatment and care. Sure, a cool $30 mil is more than you or I will ever see in our lifetimes, but compared to Oprah’s total estate it’s just a drop in the bucket. Plus, she plans to give the bulk of her $3 billion estate to charitable causes! “When I’m gone, everything that I have is going to go to charity because I don’t have children. And I believe that that’s what you should do,” she said. “To whom much is given, much should be given back.”

Janis Joplin, Rock Singer-Songwriter

The infamous Joplin tragically passed at the age of 27 in 1970 from a drug overdose. Joplin carried her nonstop party spirit into her will where she left behind $2,500 (which is like the 2018 equivalent of $16,000) for her best friends to have a rocking wake party. A few weeks after her death, the party was indeed thrown in California.

Adam Yauch, Singer, Beastie Boys Co-Founder

The talented artist’s will set the record straight for the future of his music. He provided limitations in the use of his likeness and his music with the provision: “in no event may my image or name or any music or any artistic property created by me be used for advertising purposes.” (Whether or not this request is enforceable, regarding a legal difference between publicity rights and copyrights is whole other story.)

casette tape

William Randolf Hearst, Publisher

Apparently there were rumors circulating that the publishing powerhouse/politician who died in 1951 had fathered illegitimate children. He unequivocally denied this even in his last will and testament, offering anyone who could prove such would inherit $1: “that he or she is a child of mine . . . the sum of one dollar. I hereby declare that any such asserted claim . . . would be utterly false.” No claims came forward alleging paternity, so there must have been something true behind the provision!

Benjamin Franklin, Founding Father/Politician

Franklin devised a picture frame to his daughter containing more than 400 diamonds. He left the frame (and thus the gems) to his daughter Sarah under the express provision that she “not engage the expensive, vain and useless pastime of wearing jewels.” He apparently didn’t want her to remove the diamonds from the frame…apparently the request was not honored.

Just like these interesting wills, your estate plan is entirely your own. You can elect to pass your assets on to whomever you wish including your pets, kids, and favorite charities. But, you can’t record these requests until you execute an estate plan! (Remember, a will is one of the multiple documents found in an estate plan.) Get started with my free Estate Plan Questionnaire and contact me for a free consult!

Checklist with coffee and croissant

It’s National Estate Planning Awareness Week! In an effort to break down the barriers, myths, and excuses surrounding estate planning, I’ve created this handy dandy ultimate estate planning checklist. It runs down just about everything you need in terms of a comprehensive, quality estate plan including the six major documents, reviewing beneficiary designations, considering if a trust is applicable to you, and discussing your estate plan with your loved ones.

Estate Planning Checklist GFLF

 

I would love to help you check these items off your list. If you want to get started, download my Estate Plan Questionnaire. Or, you can contact me to discuss your individual situation and what estate planning provisions make the most sense for you!

real estate keys to house

It’s National Estate Planning Week (I know you’re as excited about it as we are!) which is a good excuse to bring up a hypothetical scenario: what happens, in terms of estate planning, if either the buyer or seller in a sale of real estate (like a house or land) dies before the closing?

It’s a situation that is fairly improbable, but it can and does happen. Plus, it’s good to explore just in case you ever find yourself dealing with this as the executor of a loved one’s estate.

Let’s say that you’re buying a house and you’ve already executed the contract (a purchase agreement) with the seller. Before the closing date, the seller passed away. What happens to the property? How does it fit into the seller’s estate plan? What is the executor responsible for? It’s easy to see how this can be a complicated conundrum.

Equitable and Legal Title

At this point, after the purchase agreement is drawn up and before the closing, you as the buyer hold an equitable title in the real property (the house). Equitable title is legal parlance meaning here that the buyer has a right to obtain full ownership of a property (or property interest). Equitable title comes with certain rights. For example, the seller can’t sell the property to a third party or subject the property to an encumbrance or a lien that would interfere with the buyer’s property interest.

Legal title, in comparison, is actual ownership of the land. In the period between the sale agreement and the closing, the seller holds the legal title to the property being sold. Legal title transfers to the buyer when the final payment is made (typically this is done at the closing or through an escrow process when the buyer receives the property deed in exchange for the payments made).

Like our hypothetical, if the seller dies during this point in the sales process this legal title in the property is a part of the seller’s estate. That means the seller’s estate can still sell the property (and is contracted to do so), collect the profit from the sale, and then disperse the profits as part of the decedent’s total gross estate to the beneficiaries.

What About the Seller’s Heirs?

The seller’s heirs-at-law and/or estate plan beneficiaries may have expected to inherit the house. But, if the seller entered into a valid contract for sale before they died, the estate’s executor is bound to honor the contract.

Note that sometimes there are required waiting periods where the executor must wait before executing documents for the estate (such as the sale of real estate). So, as the buyer, you can anticipate a reasonable time delay (think 30 days) compared to the schedule set out in the purchase agreement.

Of course, there are many rules of real estate and contract law that come into play, but in terms of property and how it plays into the estate planning process, these are the basics!

Enlist an Estate Planning Attorney to Help Everything Run Smoothly

If you do find yourself in the position of being the executor of a seller’s estate and that seller died in the midst of a real estate sale, don’t hesitate to enlist the expertise of an estate planner to help guide you how to best accommodate and fulfill your fiduciary duties.

On a related point, if you sell your house or purchase a new property, it may necessitate updates to your estate plan! Review your plan and then schedule a free consult to ensure all of your assets are properly accounted for in your plan.

Any questions about your specific estate planning situation? Contact GFLF at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com or by phone,515-371-6077.

this week calendar

Believe it or not, National Estate Planning Awareness Week is a very real thing and we’re celebrating October 21-27! Let’s kick it off with a brief history on the Week and estate planning in general.

Background on National Estate Planning Awareness Week

National Estate Planning Awareness Week was an effort spearheaded by the National Association of Estate Planners & Councils (NAEPC) and Rep. Mike Thompson (D-CA) (with 49 other Representatives on board).  In September 2008, Congress passed H. Res. 1499 which designated the third week in October as a week for assisting the public in understanding the importance and benefits of estate planning, as well as how to assemble a qualified team of experts to assist in the process.

In general, it’s in the best interest of society when the transfer of wealth and property is as seamless and as close to the decedent’s intent as possible. That’s where estate planning comes in and why it’s so essential.

Sure, you won’t see decorations for sale for National Estate Planning Awareness Week…but you can still celebrate by discussing your estate planning needs and goals with a qualified, experienced estate planning attorney. This goes for your first (much needed) estate plan, but also revisions on existing estate plans. (Remember, estate plans never expire!)

Time Warp: A Brief History of Estate Planning

For as long as people have had property, that property has been distributed or passed along in some manner or another. In early cultures property was considered to be owned collectively by a family or tribe and when a leader of the group perished the assets were divided in accordance with family/tribal customs.

Estate planning was apparent in ancient Rome under the Code of Justinian which recognized oral and written wills that were approved by a public official. In the Anglo-Saxon period of England, royalty had to approve land transfers. That changed in the 12th century when property would automatically pass to the eldest son. Under English law, the Statute of Wills was established in the 16th century which allowed a landowner to pass along their land as they wished, whether that was to the eldest or not.

Current state intestacy laws are a modern iteration of British common law in which property inheritance passed to the spouse and children in pre-defined percentages.

Unfortunately, women were often excluded entirely from estate planning; assets were only distributed amongst male heirs at law and women were disinherited. At certain points throughout history, women (such as a wife or daughter) could be provided for through a trust upon the death of the husband/father, but often that trust was dissolved if/when the woman married/remarried. Thankfully policy and society progressed, and now women and men have an equal right to inheritance and ability to convey assets.

To that point, the individual American citizen of today has the freedom to plan for the distribution of property as wished without approval needed or mandate defining who can and cannot be a beneficiary.

Estate Planning in the United States

Statue of Liberty

In U.S. history, estate planning has been intricately linked with estate taxes because estate planning techniques are tools to reduce or even eliminate the Federal estate tax. To understand that in full you could go all the way back to the Stamp Act of 1797, where a tax was passed to fund the Navy in an “undeclared war with France.” The estate tax was subsequently abolished and then reinstated with corresponding wars including the Civil War and Spanish American War.

The estate tax, more or less as we think of it today, was instituted in association with World War I in 1916. To bypass this, people would gift parts of their estates to their families to which the lawmakers responded to by passing a gift tax in 1924. It was briefly repealed and then re-enacted in 1932 and remained that way until 1976 when the gift and estate tax were consolidated.

In modern political history, the estate tax has seen a few major changes; it was entirely revoked in the 2010 calendar year after 2001 legislation phased out the tax. However, that didn’t last long. The Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization, and Job Creation Act of 2010 meant a return of the estate tax but raised the exclusion to $5 million for 2011 and 2012. Then came the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 which kept the $5 million inflation-adjusted exclusion figure, but increased the maximum rate of the tax to 40 percent from 35 percent. In 2018, the exclusion rate sits at $11.18 million per individual. This means an individual can leave $11.18 million to heirs and pay no federal estate or gift tax. Married couples get an exclusion for each spouse, so a couple can leave up to $22.36 to their heirs and IRS won’t collect estate tax on it.

Final Footnote

All of this history is to say that estate planning, in some form or another, has been an important aspect of societies in the world for a long time. Regardless of the size of your estate, and just like the ancient Romans or Americans of the early 1900s, you want to pass along your assets to the people you care about and want to provide for. Claim your right to distribute your property in accordance with your wishes by ensuring you have an up-to-date, quality estate plan. The best way to get started is with my free (and no obligation) Estate Plan Questionnaire. It’s a great tool for organizing all the important information you and your estate planner need to know when creating your custom estate plan.


This is the first of a week’s worth of articles all dedicated to the topic of estate planning as a part of National Estate Planning Awareness Week. Want to discuss your estate plan or talk about the history of the estate tax? Don’t hesitate to contact me.