Heirs at law on beach

Before I explain the concept of “heirs at law,” you might be thinking, why even bring this up? Of what relevance is this “Ye Olde Sounding Phraise” in today’s modern world?

It’s important for me to share the concept of “heirs at law” with you, dear GoFisch blog Reader, for three reasons.

  1. It helps explain why I, and other estate planners, ask so many darn questions. We need lots of info.
  2. The concept of “heirs at law” shows that you need to be open and honest and forthcoming with me, or any estate planner. Without complete transparency and truth, the estate plan runs the risk of being useless (the idea of “garbage in, garbage out” applies here).
  3. “Heirs at law” is yet another reason that a DIY will, or using an online service to produce your will, is just a terrible idea. You need an estate plan crafted by a trusted professional, unique to your special needs. Every family is different, so there can be no “one-size-fits-all” estate plan, and there are many moving parts to a comprehensive estate plan.

With that established, what does the term “heirs at law” actually mean?

Heirs at law are those folks who would inherit your property in the event you died without a will, which is called intestacy.1 It is critically important to determine who the heirs at law are, even for people not subject to the laws of intestacy (i.e., folks who have a will) for two big reasons.

  1. Heirs at law must be notified of the probate process.
  2. Heirs at law are allowed to challenge the will in probate court.

All in the (sometimes complicated) family

As I already stated, it’s a wise idea to work with your estate planner and provide all the information requested. As a practical matter, the extent of information you’ll need to provide your estate planner regarding heirs at law depends of the nature of your family and relatives. For instance, in the case of two people, married only to each other, with children only from that one marriage—then the spouse and children (and perhaps grandchildren) will be the obvious heirs at law.

In another example, a family could also constitute a remarriage with each spouse having children from previous relationships. In this case, the stepchildren would need to be adopted by the applicable stepparent to be considered an heir at law.

In other situations, the client relatives may be much more distant, requiring more fact investigation. For example, take the case of a client who is unmarried and without children. In such a situation, the estate planner will need to pay close attention to identifying other relatives.

Of course, with an estate plan you can bequeath your estate to whomever you choose. You don’t have to give anything to any of your obvious or non-obvious heirs at law or any other relative for that matter. (In colloquial terms we could call this “stiffing your relatives.”) Although with that said, you cannot choose to disinherit a spouse.

This point reiterates why the estate planner should know and have updated contact information of who are the heirs at law. Again, it’s required that heirs at law be notified of probate process and these heirs (unlike a non-relative work colleague or neighbor) also have the legal standing to contest the will in court.

Another reason the estate planner must have knowledge of the heirs at law is to ward off fraudulent claims if need be. This reason is particularly important if the heirs at law are distant relatives. (An unfortunate real-world example of this involves Prince and the complicated intestate process following the singer’s passing without an estate plan.)

Bottom line: heirs at law are important when it comes to the distribution of your estate (with or without a will). Of course, dying intestate is NOT optimal and you DO need a will for a number of important reasons. I’d love to discuss the topic over the phone (515-371-6077) or via email. Don’t hesitate to contact me at any time!


[1] Bonus word! If an Iowan dies without a valid will, they die “intestate” and the laws of “intestate” succession are used to determine who will inherit the estate.

Settlor (or Donor or Grantor)

The person who creates a trust is called the settlor (sometimes called the donor or grantor). It is the settlor’s intent which is of paramount importance. It is the intent of the settlor that determines whether a trust has been created.

Here’s a great read with a rundown on the basics of what a trust is:

Intent Is Everything

If a settlor transfers property to a recipient with the intent that the recipient hold the property for someone else, then a trust has indeed been created. If the settlor transfers property with the intent that the recipient use the property for her own benefit, then NO trust has been created.

BONUS WORD! Precatory Trust

What if a settlor transfers property to a recipient with just a wish that the recipient use the property for the benefit of someone else, but does not impose any legal obligation? In such a situation, no legal trust is created. Instead, this is called a precatory trust, but is not a trust at all, because the settlor placed no legal responsibilities on the recipient. A precatory trust is, again, not a trust and is not governed by the law of trusts.

Three Easy Hypotheticals

  • Let’s look at three quick examples to make this clear. Mack gives stock to Julie. Mack intends that the stock be for Julie’s own use. Mack is NOT the settlor of a trust, because no trust has been created.

Stock market sheet

  • Grace gives a vacation house to Maddie, intending that Maddie hold the house for the benefit of Zach. Grace is the settlor of a trust. If a settlor transfers property to a recipient with the intent the recipient holds the property for the benefit of someone else, then a trust is created.

vacation home on lake

  • Thomas gives a coin collection to Parker, just wishing that Parker would hold the coins for Danna. This is a mere precatory trust, not a trust at all because the settlor is not imposing any legal responsibilities on the recipient.

coin collection

Questions? Let’s Talk.

When it comes to estate planning, I’m all about breaking down the legalese barriers. This hopefully clarified the definition of settlor, but you may have questions…which is great! Contact me to discuss further the status of your estate plan and decisions regarding your trust. Reach me by email at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com or phone at 515-371-6077.

GoFisch blog

Mark Twain famously said, “A classic is something everybody wants to have read, but no one wants to read.” Life insurance is a little like that. Everyone needs it, but we don’t like to talk about it much.

Life Insurance as Key Estate Planning Tool

Life insurance is an amazing estate planning tool. I cannot stress enough the importance of life insurance. I, of course, don’t sell it, so I have no economic stake here. It’s just that life insurance is generally reasonably and affordably priced, yet still so helpful with so many financial goals. Replacing a breadwinner’s earnings is one of the most commons ways it is utilized. But, it can also provide liquid assets for a small business when a key partner dies. Life insurance can also cover costs that you might forget about, like funeral costs or unpaid taxes. While there are many advantages to life insurance, and you most definitely need it, life insurance can also create estate planning issues.

Three Estate Planning Issues Life Insurance May Create

The major issue created by life insurance is that of the “sudden windfall” to your beneficiary. Do you really want, say, your 19-year-old to inherit several hundred thousand dollars at once? Even oldsters with experience managing finances may find a huge influx of cash to be overwhelming.

Another issue to consider: does your beneficiary receive government benefits? If so, proceeds from your life insurance policy might make your beneficiary ineligible for further benefits. By the way, don’t think that those receiving government aid are all elderly. Quite the opposite! A vast majority of Medicaid recipients are under age 44. Regardless of age, any beneficiary on Medicaid, or similar government aid program, is at risk of losing benefits without careful estate planning.

Finally, for high-net-worth (HNW) individuals and families, there is the issue of the federal estate tax. Everything owned in your name at death is included in your estate for estate tax purposes. Yes, that includes the death benefit proceeds of your life insurance policy. Considering that many policies carry quite hefty death benefits (several hundred thousand dollars, or more, not being unusual), this is definitely something for those with HNW to carefully consider.

In Trusts we Trust

I’ve explained trusts generally before. A quick primer: in simplest terms, a trust is a legal agreement between three parties: grantor, trustee, and beneficiary. This allows a third party (the trustee) to hold assets for a beneficiary (or beneficiaries).

There are a nearly infinite variety of trusts. One type of trust is an irrevocable life insurance trust or ILIT.

So, what IS an Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust?

Think of an ILIT as an “imaginary container,” which owns your life insurance policy for you. This provides several benefits. An ILIT removes the life insurance from your estate, i.e., lowers estate tax liability. Like other trusts, an ILIT allows you to decide how, when, and even why your named beneficiary receives life insurance proceeds.

Wait, what was that about the three parties?

The grantor is you, the purchaser of life insurance.

The trustee can be anyone you, as grantor, chooses — an individual(s) or a qualified corporate trustee (like the trust department at your bank). But, note a major difference between an ILIT and other kinds of trusts – with a large number of other trusts, you can name yourself as trustee. With an ILIT, you wouldn’t want to do so, because the IRS may then determine that life insurance really hasn’t left your estate.

Who can be a beneficiary of an ILIT?

Most often, spouses, children, and/or grandchildren are the named beneficiaries of an ILIT. But really, it can be any individual(s) you, as grantor, choose.

Your beneficiary and your life insurance proceeds

The conditions under which a beneficiary receives distributions from an ILIT is up to you. You can, for example, specify that your beneficiary receives monthly or annual distributions. You can decide the amounts. You may even dictate that your beneficiary receives distributions when s/he reaches milestones which you choose. For example, you can provide for a large(r) distribution when a beneficiary reaches a certain age, graduates from college or post-graduate program, buys a first home, marries, or has a child. Or, really, just about any other condition or event that you decide is appropriate.

You also have the option to build in flexibility, so that your trustee has the discretion to provide distributions when your beneficiary needs it for a special purpose, like pursuing higher education, starting a business, making an investment, and so on.

And, of course, if your beneficiary is receiving government benefits, an ILIT can account for that, as well.

Good gosh, is there anything an ILIT CAN’T DO?

Once again, an ILIT is irrevocable. While an ILIT provides a great deal of flexibility, there’s one action for certain you can’t take — you cannot transfer a policy owned by an ILIT into your own name. So, if you think that someday you may need to access the policy’s cash value for your own purposes, you probably shouldn’t set up an ILIT.

Options for “ending” an ILIT

Now, I suppose, there’s nothing requiring you to continue making insurance payments into your ILIT. Depending on the kind of policy you have, your policy may lapse as soon as you miss your premium payment. Or, if your policy has cash value, these funds may be used to pay premiums until all the accumulated cash is exhausted. So, that’s an option for “ending” an ILIT.

I bet you have some questions. Let’s talk!

An ILIT can provide you, your loved ones, and your estate with significant benefits. To learn more, contact me at my email, gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com, for a free consultation, without obligation. You can also give me a call at 515-371-6077.


*Yes, you’re right – ILIT is really not a word, but an acronym. You caught me. It’s just that Legal Word of the Day sounds more exciting than Legal Acronym of the Day. Also, congratulations to you for being the kind of person who reads footnotes.

**In 2019 an individual must have an estate of more than about $11.18 million, and a married couple an estate of more than $22.8 million, before they need to worry about federal estate taxes.

pen on desk

You’ve probably heard it before on your favorite law show or movie court case, but do you know what “quid pro quo” actually means?

Quid pro quo (“something for something” in Latin) means an exchange of goods or services, where one transfer is contingent upon the other.

Quid pro quo can have different meanings in different areas of the law. For instance, we typically hear this phrase in relation to employment law. So, in the arena of philanthropy and nonprofits, what does quid pro quo mean?

A charitable donation is deductible to the extent the donation exceeds the value of any goods or services received in exchange. So what happens when you donate to your favorite charity and receive something tangible in return? This is the issue of “quid pro quo” in charitable gift law.

giving gift

Quid Pro Quo Example

If a donor gives a charity $100 and receives an opera ticket valued at $40, the donor has made a quid pro quo contribution. In this example, the charitable contribution part of the payment is $60. The donor is entitled to a charitable deduction for $60, but not the entire $100.

Both the donor and donee have a responsibility here. The donor, of course, can only deduct the cost of the donation less the value of the goods/services received. The charitable organization must provide their donors clear, written documentation of the value of donations.

In fact, in these quid pro quo situations, under IRS rules, the nonprofit must provide a written disclosure statement. This required written disclosure statement must both:

• Inform the donor that the amount of the contribution that is deductible for federal income tax purposes is limited to the excess of any money (and the value of any property other than money) contributed by the donor over the value of goods or services provided by the charity.

• Provide the donor with a good faith estimate of the value of the goods or services that the donor received.

Free Consultation

Thinking about making a donation or looking for guidance regarding gift acceptance at your nonprofit, no quid pro quo is required! I offer a free one-hour consultation, with absolutely no obligation. I can always be reached by email at Gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com, and by phone at 515-371-6077.

In my ongoing efforts to break down the legalese barriers that tend to separate lawyers from the real world, and have increased quality communication, here’s another Fun with Legal Words post. Today’s word is “trust.”

In this context, and in the simplest terms, a trust is a legal agreement between three parties: settlor, trustee, and beneficiary. Let’s look at each of these three parties, and then delve more into how a trust works.

Settlor

All trusts have a settlor, sometimes called the “donor” or “trustor.” The settlor creates the trust, and also has legal authority to transfer property to the trust. 

Trustee

The trustee can be any person or entity that can take title to property on behalf of a beneficiary. The trustee is responsible for managing the property according to the rules outlined in the trust document and must do so in the best interests of the beneficiary.

Beneficiary

The beneficiary is the person or entity benefiting from the trust. The beneficiary can be one person/entity or multiple parties (true also of settlor and trustee). Multiple trust beneficiaries do not have to have the same interests in the trust property. Also, trust beneficiaries do not have to even exist at the time the trust is created (such as a future grandchild, or charitable foundation that hasn’t been set up yet).

Trust Property

A trust can be either funded or unfunded. By funded, we mean that trust property has been placed “inside” the trust. This property is sometimes called the “principal” or the “corpus.” A trust is unfunded until property are transferred into your name as trustee of the trust.

Any Asset

Any asset can be held by a trust. Trust property can be real estate, intangible property, business interests, and personal property. Some common examples of trust property include farms, buildings, vacation homes, money, stocks, bonds, collections, personal possessions, and vehicles.

“Imaginary Container”

We speak of putting assets “in” a trust, but assets don’t actually change location. Think of a trust as an “imaginary container.” It’s not a geographical place that protects something (such as a garage protects your car), but a form of ownership that holds it for your benefit. For instance, on your car title the owner blank would read “The John Smith Trust.” It’s common to put real estate (farms, homes, vacation condos) and entire accounts (savings, checking, credit union, and brokerage accounts) into a trust.

After the trust is funded, the trust property will still be in the same place before the trust was created—your land where it always was, your car in the garage, your money in the bank, your stamp collection in the study… The only difference is the property will have a different owner: “The Jane Jones Trust,” not Jane Jones.

imaginary container

Transfer of Ownership

Putting property in a trust transfers it from personal ownership to the trustee, who holds the property for the beneficiary. The trustee has legal title to the trust property. For most purposes, the law treats trust property as if it were now owned by the trustee and trusts have separate taxpayer identification numbers.

But, trustees are not the full owners of trust property. Trustees have a legal duty to use trust property as provided in the trust agreement and permitted by law. The beneficiaries retain what is known as equitable title: the right to benefit from trust property as specified in the trust.

Assets to Beneficiary

The settlor provides terms in a trust agreement as to how the fund’s assets are to be distributed to a beneficiary. The settlor can provide for the distribution of funds in any way that is not against the law or against public policy.

Types of Trusts Almost Limitless

The types of trusts are almost limitless. Trusts may be classified by their purpose, duration, creation method, or by the nature of the trust property.

Benefits of Trusts

The potential benefits of trusts are immense. The benefits include avoiding probate (and other costs savings), privacy, and helping with every family’s unique needs. 

Avoid Probate

A major benefit of trusts is avoiding probate. This is because, upon death, the trust dictates how trust property will pass. Avoiding probate saves your loved ones both time and money as the probate process is time-consuming, taking anywhere from several months to a year to complete. Sometimes, depending on the size of the estate, it can take even longer. Probate can also be expensive. Attorney’s fees alone can amount to two percent of the total estate, or even more in extraordinary cases. For some, two percent of their assets can be a very high number. Often, the cost of creating a trust is considerably less expensive than the cost of probate would have been.

Privacy

When a will is filed with an Iowa court upon death, the will becomes a public record. Trusts, on the other hand, remain private documents. Many folks, especially in small towns, have a strong desire to keep business affairs private.

Second Marriages and Blended Families

dad swinging children on beach

Trusts are also helpful in situations involving second marriages or blended families. When married couples have children from previous relationships, the surviving spouse has the ability to disinherit stepchildren. A trust can remedy this situation by providing lifetime benefits to the surviving spouse but, after his or her death, leaving assets to children and stepchildren.

Special Needs Trusts

Families with members who have special care needs must take a careful estate planning approach. For example, when a person receives government assistance due to a disability, a gift or inheritance might result in denial of benefits. However, assets can be left in certain types of trusts (for example, a special needs trust), to provide for supplemental needs while still allowing persons with disabilities to continue to receive benefits.

Let’s Get Started

You probably still have some questions on trusts…which is why I’m here! Don’t hesitate to contact me. I offer a free one-hour consultation at which point we can discuss your personal situation, see if a trust is right for you, and set up the steps to take for success.

tenancy by entirety

When you create an estate plan one of the key benefits is that you’re dictating how you want your executor to distribute your assets when you pass away. An estate planning-related question I’ve gotten over the years is: “What about the house? Doesn’t my spouse just get the house straight away?” It’s true, many people do co-own real property (like a house) with their spouse. But, different types of concurrent estates (meaning co-ownership by two or more people) afford different rights to said co-owners.

So, the short answer to that commonly asked question about the house is: it depends.

house under tree

Tenancy by Entirety

One type of co-ownership is called tenancy by entirety. This type exists only between spouses, and they hold the property (like a house) as one legal entity. If one spouse passes away, the surviving spouse takes the whole–becomes the sole owner–of the property.

This means the property would pass outside of probate, making for a simpler answer to the aforementioned “what about our house?” question. So, if something different was written in the deceased spouse’s will, this tenancy by entirety situation “wins” out. The same goes for if the spouse died intestate (without a will) and there’s no messing with which of the heirs-at-law gets what.

Another benefit is that the property is usually exempt from one spouse’s individual debts and liabilities. This means that a creditor couldn’t seize the property from the innocent spouse who is not legally responsible for the other spouse’s sole debts.

However, while this “special” concurrent estate come with the benefit of right of survivorship, there are certain limitations that come with it as well.

Spouses can choose to sever, mortgage, transfer, or sell the tenancy by the entirety, but neither can do so acting alone; both have to be in agreement.

It should also be noted that divorce terminates the tenancy by entirety.

Not in Iowa

Iowa does NOT recognize tenancy by entirety, but these 26 other states do. So, if you’re sharing this info with loved ones or if you co-own property in one of those states, you’ll want to speak with an experienced estate planner about how this type of concurrent estate fits in with your estate planning goals.

What about other types of concurrent estates?

There’s much more that can be said on this phrase and I’d be happy to consult with you personally.

If this post wasn’t exciting enough for you and you want to learn even more about concurrent estates, you’re in luck! We’ll talk about tenancy in common and joint tenancy in the next couple posts.

Want to make certain your assets, including big ones like land or a house, pass how and to whom you choose? Schedule a free consult at your convenience and get started on my free, no-obligation estate plan questionnaire.

man reading newspaper

If spelling tests weren’t always your strong suit in school, fear not! Today’s legal word of the day is an easy one that’s having a momentary editorial heyday.

Ripped From the Headlines

As you probably heard, The New York Times took the highly unusual step of publishing an unsigned, anonymous op-ed entitled, “I am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration.” The person was identified only as follows:

“…. a senior official in the Trump administration whose identity is known to us and whose job would be jeopardized by its disclosure. We believe publishing this essay anonymously is the only way to deliver an important perspective to our readers.”

man with newspaper near train

Whodunnit?

The article led to a nationwide guessing game. Who is the senior official in the Trump administration who penned this “explosive” piece? Suspicion fell onto, of all people, Vice President Mike Pence. This is because the op-ed writer uses the word “lodestar,” and Pence has used this obscure word multiple times. (Pence vehemently denied he was the author, by the way.)

I don’t know who wrote the op-ed, and we may never know, but the real winner out of this news cycle is the word you never knew you needed in your vocabulary—lodestar!

So, What DOES Lodestar Mean?

Lodestar means “a star that leads or guides,” and is especially used in relation to the North Star.

timelapse of stars

Now, Let’s Talk About a Similar Kind of “Star”

At this point you’re like, “Gordon, this is a cool word I can def use in playing Scrabble, but what does it have to do with the law?”

Well, “lodestar” is a synonym and practically interchangeable with the word “polestar,” which is defined as a “directing principle; a guide.”

A court will use the term polestar like so: In this case, our polestar must be this principle . . .

Basically the court will use such-and-such as its guiding principle.

direction sign on a mountain

For example, in the law of wills, the Iowa Supreme Court stated In the Estate of Twedt that “the testator’s [maker of the will’s] intent is the polestar and if expressed must prevail.” You’ll see the same in the law of trusts, the intent of the settlor of a trust must be the polestar.

The word is also used in the law of charitable giving. The intent of the donor is the polestar which courts must follow if there are any issues. For example, suppose a donor posthumously donates $100,000 to a nonprofit, but the nonprofit no longer exists. What was the donor’s intent? Is it stated anywhere what the donor wanted to happen to the charitable funds if the nonprofit was no more? If not written, did the donor discuss the matter with anyone? To resolve any dispute involving a charitable gift, the guiding principle–the polestar–must be the donor’s intent.

Practical application of the Word Polestar

A major reason to have an estate plan is that YOU get to control your own future, rather than being controlled by outside forces or outside events. Through proper estate planning, you can be in total control of the answers to the following questions:

And if there are any questions or issues regarding your estate plan, lawyers and judges looking at your estate plan will make decisions based on YOUR intent. Your intent will be the polestar!

Don’t delay any longer – thank your lucky (North) stars you still have time to make a proper estate plan. I’d be happy to talk with you about your estate plan any time, or you can get started on organizing your important info in my free Estate Plan Questionnaire. I can be reached via email (gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com) or by cell (515-371-6077). I’d truly love to hear from you.

magnifying glass over book

When most people use the word “property,” they typically mean real estate or land, such as: “She owns 50 acres of property in Harrison County.” But, for estate planners, the word property has a much broader meaning. For estate planners, property is what we lawyers call a “term of art.” A term of art is a word or phrase that has a specialized, specific meaning within a particular field (such as the legal profession). Terms of art are abundant in the law; other legal terms of art you may have heard of include “double jeopardy,” “burden of proof,” and “punitive damages.”

bookcase with ladder

Two Broad Classifications

There are two broad classifications of property—real property and personal property. Real property includes land and whatever is built on the land or attached to it. It includes buildings (like houses and grain silos), fences, tile lines, and mineral rights, for example.

Personal property is best described by what it is NOT. Anything and everything that is not real property, is then personal property. It can be easiest to think of this in terms of movability. Typically real property cannot be picked up and moved. Yes, you could dig up dirt from your plot of land and move it to your neighbor’s plot of land, but you cannot actually “move” the land.  And, sure, you could argue that you could move a shed from one corner of the yard to another, but not easily.

To drive this point home, let’s think about that shed. Let’s say I want to build a shed. The lumber, tools, and paint I brought to the site to build the shed are personal property; the shed itself is real property.

Intangible and Tangible Property

Personal property is broken down into tangible property and intangible property. Tangible personal property has physical substance and can be touched, held, and felt. Examples of tangible personal property are numerous, just a few examples are furniture, vehicles, baseball cards, cars, comic books, jewelry, and art.

Intangible personal property includes assets such as bank accounts, stocks, bonds, insurance policies, and retirement benefit accounts.

Pop Quiz!

Can you classify the following as real property, tangible personal property, or intangible personal property?

Your Twitter account.

This is intangible personal property. Yes, your social media presence and digital accounts are intangible property. (Don’t forget to account for this property in your estate plan!)

Your IRA.

Again, this is intangible property.

Farmland, including its silos and fences.

Real property.

Your comic book collection.

Tangible property!

MacBook Air laptop computer.

Your computer is tangible property. But, it may contain intangible property which could well have monetary value, such as a document containing a recipe you wrote on how to bake a better apple pie, or a software you programmed.

This quiz, and overall discussion about property, sparks a big question…

What Happens to Your Property When You Die?

When you die, what happens to your property depends in large part on whether you have a will (as a part of a complete estate plan) or not. If you have a will, then your property will pass to your beneficiaries just as you intended. An exception: some intangible personal property, such as retirement and bank accounts, have beneficiary designations. Such property will pass to its intended beneficiary without a will. (Don’t forget a beneficiary designation trumps what’s written in a will, if there is any discrepancy between the two.)

If you die without a will, you are leaving it up to the Iowa intestacy laws to decide who will receive your property. Decisions as to who of your heirs at law receive your property will be made without any regard as to what you may have wanted, or may have not wanted, if you would have had a say in the matter. Long story short, it’s a good idea to put an end to the excuses and enlist a qualified estate planner to draft your personalized, quality estate plan.

Whether it’s real or personal, tangible, or intangible, act now to protect and prepare your property for the future. Get an estate plan. You can reach me most easily by email at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com or call my cell, 515-371-6077. Don’t delay—write or call today.

The latest lawsuit to grip the U.S. news cycle has all the makings of an interesting drama complete with pseudonyms, an agreement to “hush,” a payment for $130,000, and an absent signature. That missing signature is, in part, what brings us to an adult film actress’ lawsuit that a 15-page agreement between “Peggy Peterson” and “David Dennison” concerning an alleged affair with the president is null and void. How? The actress/stripper/director, Stormy Daniels (legal name: Stephanie Clifford), and her attorney, Michael Avenatti, filed their complaint on the bases that that the contract is unconscionable (unreasonably excessive) and invalid since Trump never personally signed. There are also allegations of coercion and physical threats against the actress by the opposing party to stay silent about what she knew about Donald Trump.

If the agreement is found to be invalidated, that would fling open the door for Stormy Daniels to publicly share her story involving Donald Trump without having to pay any damages to Trump’s attorney, Michael Cohen, who brokered the deal.

Daniels requested declaratory relief from the agreement—which Trump’s representatives are intent on enforcing—and even offered to return the $130,000 payment she received.

Many words could be written on the potential legal avenues both sides of this suit could pursue. But, with a CBS “60 Minutes” interview with Daniels slated to air this month, let’s zoom in on one important aspect of the agreement in question: breach of contract.

Even if you’re not suing Trump, we all enter into contracts and agreements, large and small, as a part of living in a modern society. Knowing what breach of contract means could have implications on partnership agreements, residential leases, and employment contracts, among many, many other kinds of agreements.

Legal & Binding

Suit on stairs

Before we dig into how a party can breach a contract, let’s establish what a contract actually is. A contract simply refers to a promise between two or more parties that establishes binding legal duties on the parties, such that the contract can be enforced in a court if necessary. While there are still major differences between states regarding contract law (i.e. a contract valid in Iowa is not necessarily binding in California), under the legal framework of the Uniform Commercial Code and common law, there are necessary provisions for all legally enforceable contracts in the U.S. The major requirements include (but are not limited to): (1) offer; (2) acceptance; (3) legality of purpose; (4) intent; (5) “competent” parties; and (6) consideration. Let’s look at each of these requirements:

Offer

An offer must be made. Of course, you know what an offer is in general, but in the legal world a contract offer means it must include three parts-

  1. The offering party must make a statement of intent to enter into a contract.
  2. Terms must be specified with a specific proposal.
  3. The offer must identify the party who is receiving the offer. a communication that identifies the person to whom the offer is made.

If any of these elements are not present, an offer has not been made.

There’s no one proper way to make an offer; it could be made via email, letter, text message, telephone call, and even through behavior.

Acceptance

This requirement seems like common sense—the offer must be accepted by the other party. But, like the offer, there are certain aspects that must be present in the acceptance. For instance, an offer must be accepted in the way that the offering party authorizes. (Example: an offer you received by email could specify that acceptance means signing and mailing back to a specific postal address. Another example: a grocery store coupon in the newspaper must be used, or accepted, by a date certain or it expires.)

Plus, an offer can only be accepted by the party to whom the offer was made, unless there’s a power of attorney or other authorization of another agent to accept on the party’s behalf.

Let’s say you receive a job offer with a new employer. That’s exciting, but you’re going to want to give the offer in the form of an employment agreement a thorough review. If you review (and consult with your attorney) and decide there are terms you don’t agree with, you may suggest changes and send your counteroffer back to the prospective employer. The edited, updated version of the contract you suggested could be accepted or rejected by the employer. Without acceptance of the agreement from all parties, there is no agreement.

This is one of the elements Daniels is asserting in her lawsuit against Trump—that the existing agreement is not valid and enforceable since one of the parties, David Dennison (AKA Donald Trump), never signed the written contract.

Legality

For an agreement to be enforceable, it must be made for a legal purpose. In other words, a contract’s subject matter cannot violate public policy or be deemed illegal. For example, a “contract” involving the sale of heroin would not be enforceable. If some parts of a contract violated either a state or federal statute, while the other parts were legal, and the two could be reasonably separated, only the aspects of the contract that were lawful could be enforced.

Intent

Sometimes referred to as “mutuality of obligation,” this necessary provision means that both parties to a contract must have a similar intent for the contract. So, if one party to a contract had been shown to purposefully misled or defraud the other party on the terms of the contract, then the contract could be nullified. Basically, everyone involved needs to enter into the contract honestly.

If you were to take a contract to court with the allegation that there was a lack of mutuality of obligation, the court would likely review records and communications that were used in creating the contract. This would provide evidence and a basis for the court to determine if an agreement on intent was actually absent at the time of drafting and execution. For that reason, I typically recommended my clients keep records of communications regarding contracts for a reasonable amount of time.

To go back to our Trump lawsuit example, intent also comes into play. Daniels has asserted that she was coerced into signing the agreement, and therefore there’s a lack of intent since, if this was the case, she wouldn’t have entered into the contract entirely freely. If proof can be found of blackmail or other types of intimidation, a court will rule the contract lacking in validity and thus unenforceable.

Man looking at grey building

Competency

Parties that enter into a legal contract must have the competency and capacity to do so. People who are limited in their ability to enter into a contract include persons who have been deemed mentally incompetent, or temporarily incapacitated in the case of being under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and minors (unless they have been legally emancipated). This requirement ultimately provides protection for both parties.

Consideration

This essential part to a valid, enforceable contract is actually quite different than it sounds. Instead of simply “considering” the agreement, this means that both parties need to provide something of value. Consideration could be a good, service, money, or even benefits. What if there isn’t consideration on both sides? Then the agreement creates the situation for a gift instead of a contract.

To use our previous employment example, the consideration in most employment contracts is the exchange of a service (the work) for money (such as a salary or wage).

All or Nothing

It’s not good enough if just two or three of the elements are present—all aforementioned requirements must be met if a court is to find a contract legally enforceable and binding. 

Breach of Contract Video

Click the image to watch an easy-to-understand video on “breach of contract”

Does a Contract Have to be in Writing?

A question I receive often is if every contract must be in writing. The short answer is no, but it’s a good idea whenever possible, especially in any business contract. Plus, under the intimidating-sounding Statute of Frauds, written contracts can be necessary for certain agreements to be enforceable like those involving real estate transactions, marriage, and long-term contracts (where duties cannot or will not be performed with one year of execution). That being said, if all the required elements are present in an oral agreement (and could be backed-up if necessary) a valid, enforceable exists.

Statute of Frauds mnemonic device

Breach of Contract

Now that we’ve established what a contract is, what’s a violation or breach of a contract mean? A breach of contract occurs when either party in the legal, enforceable agreement fails to perform their duties as outlined in the contract. When a breach of contract occurs, the other (injured) party can be entitled to a remedy, typically monetary damages. In theory the monetary remedy is to be an adequate substitute for the contracted duty and that it will set-up the injured party to be in the same position had the contract never been breached.

breach of contract definition

This makes a lot of sense when you consider real-world scenarios where the monetary remedy could be used to enlist a substitute. Let’s say you’re remodeling your house and you contracted with ABC Construction to redo your kitchen. You contracted with ABC Construction based on the fact they quoted you a lower cost for the remodeling services than XYZ Construction, the only other company that performs similar services in the local area. For whatever reason, the company refuses to complete their end of the contract; they fail to show-up multiple times and you can’t get in contact with them. If the contract were legal, you could sue ABC Construction for breach of contract, and ask for monetary damages (likely equal to the higher cost of services from XYZ Construction), since ABC failed to complete their end of contracted duties. As you can see, the money remedy “restores” your economic position to that as if ABC never breached.

In almost all cases money damages are the go-to remedy for contractual performance, but there are few exceptions. Specific performance of the contracted duties can be required in unique situations where cash is not sufficient to adequately compensate the non-breaching party. Real estate offers a common example where specific performance is often required. Let’s say a valid, enforceable written contract is executed for Alan to sell Bert his house at a certain rate, but then Alan later decides he doesn’t want to sell at all. Because there is no property just like Alan’s house, Bert may be entitled to specific performance of Alan going through with the sale.

The injured party can also be entitled to contractual performance if a total value of damages cannot be calculated.

Other remedies an aggrieved party can pursue in a breach of contract include recession from the contract (terminating the contract); quantum meruit (a fancy latin way of saying “what one has earned” meaning in contract law a recovery of the value of labor and materials); and injunction (a court order for a party to do, or cease, specific acts).

Breached Mnemonic Device

Let’s take it back to the 2016 nondisclosure agreement between Daniels and Trump (or, rather, Trump’s attorney Michael Cohen). The agreement asserts that if Daniels breaches the contract (meaning she discusses information about Trump in relation to the alleged affair) the remedy will be $1 million for each violation on top of any compensation Daniels earns from disclosing information about Trump. At this time, Cohen filed papers in a federal court reportedly seeking $20 million in damages from Daniels for 20 supposed breaches of the agreement. Which circles back to Daniels’ legal argument that she is not required to pay any damages; no breach of contract occurred as there was no valid contract to begin with.

On top of all this, the clause for $1 million in liquidated damages per breach is debatably a penalty clause. “Because penalty clauses are generally not enforceable under contract law, a court will construe an excessive liquidated damages clause as a penalty clause and will simply not enforce it.” (Note that liquidated damages are defined as specific sum of money parties agreed to and wrote into the contract. This is the amount the injured party should be paid if the other party breaches certain aspects of the contract.) Then, there is the question if the agreement and payment of $130,000 violated campaign finance laws.

So, needless to say, the Stephanie Clifford a.k.a. Stormy Daniels a.k.a. Peggy Peterson vs. Donald J. Trump a.k.a David Dennison and Essential Consultants, LLC. lawsuit seems to be getting increasingly complex with news of Cohen’s lawsuit against Buzzfeed. It’s also likely that we’re going to see other conversations surrounding Trump and breach of contracts considering the nondisclosure agreements he had White House staffers sign. The agreements supposedly have economic penalties for “unauthorized disclosures” not just during Trump’s term in the White House, but even after he’s out of office.

All of this is to say before you sign a contract, be it for some aspect of nonprofit operations, a personal property transaction, or employment agreement, you’ll need to spend ample time reviewing all the fine print. If at all possible you will also want to run the agreement by a skilled attorney, so they can help catch any obscure legalese or one-sided loopholes.

Questions about “breach of contract?” Need advice on a pending agreement? Want to know if a contract has all the required elements? Don’t hesitate to contact me via email or by phone (515-371-6077).

subpoena and pen

The language in which much of the law is written and conducted in can be downright confusing…it’s not called legalese for nothing! Even basic words, like property and trust, can take on varied and more specific meanings than their normal everyday meanings. But other words and phrases are a part of most adult Iowan’s peripheral lexicons if even from watching shows like The Good Wife or the nightly news Certain events or people can also spark an interest in legal-based terminology. For instance, many more people have now heard of the legal term “inclusion rider” thanks to Frances Dormand’s Best Actress acceptance speech at the recent Academy Awards. We’ve seen plenty of headlines featuring the word “subpoena” in the news cycle recently particularly in relation to a former outspoken Trump aide. It’s one of those words you kind of know, or think you may know, but again aren’t for sure. In order to better understand what’s going on with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation on Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections, let’s review what the legal term “subpoena” really means and if you can simply ignore it or refuse to cooperate if you want to…looking at you, Sam Nunberg.

What Does Subpoena Mean?

A subpoena is a formal court-ordered command to do something specific. There are two main, different kinds of subpoenas. (Quick phonetics lesson: the “b” is silent and the “poe” makes a long “e” sound.”) We’ll use the former Trump campaign aide (and defendant in a Trump lawsuit) Sam Nunberg as an example throughout.

Subpoena duces tecum

One type, subpoena duces tecum, demands you present a kind of tangible evidence like a physical item or document. For instance, a subpoena could request letters, photographs, emails, audio recordings, video footage, and text messages related to the case. (In fact, as a practical matter, a subpoena duces tecum will generally request all these items).

In the case of Sam Nunberg, the subpoena requested documents and communications dating back to November 2015 with people related to the scope of the investigation such as Donald Trump, former campaign advisor Roger Stone, Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen, and former chief strategist Steve Bannon, among others. The subpoena was issued by a grand jury. (Grand jury reminder: a prosecutor establishes a grand jury to determine if there is enough probable cause, or evidence, to pursue a criminal case.) Earlier this week, Nunberg said in an interview he “objected to the subpoena because it asks for information about people whom he either never talked to or with whom he had close relationships.” Nunberg also asserted that it wasn’t fair for the investigation to demand his personal communications and that his emails weren’t relevant to the investigation.

subpoena nunberg

An excerpt from Nunberg’s subpoena | The New York Times

Subpoena ad testificandum

The other type of subpoena is ad testificandum, which compels a person to give their oral testimony at a specific time before an authorized legal body, such as a court, congressional/legislative body, grand jury, or government administrative agency. Before such a subpoena is issued, the person or group seeking information will typically first seek testimony on a voluntary basis. (For example, Trump’s White House attorneys have provided the investigation team with voluntary testimony.)

In the two-page subpoena, Nunberg was also requested to appear before a federal grand jury testimony and deliver oral testimony this Friday, March 9.

Subpoenas & Enforcement

Quite literally the word subpoena is derived from the similar Latin term sub poena which means “under penalty.” This makes it pretty obvious that there are penalties involved if you don’t do whatever is requested without a valid reason. If you receive a subpoena and you don’t cooperate with the (presumptively reasonable) request, you could be held in contempt of court and/or hit with time in jail and/or a fine.

Relating this back to our infamous subpoenaed headliner—when Nunberg was asked by MSNBC if he was worried about being arrested for defying the subpoena, he didn’t seemed concerned and said, “I think it would be really, really funny if they wanted to arrest me because I don’t want to spend 80 hours going over emails I had with Steve Bannon and Roger Stone.”

If no proper legal reason was asserted by Nunberg’s attorneys, and he failed to testify in front of the federal grand jury, prosecutors could ask a judge to grant a bench warrant for Nunberg’s arrest.

supreme court building

Can You Refuse a Subpoena at all?

Some scenarios allow you to present a valid legal defense against complying with the subpoena. You can claim the subpoena’s request(s) is overly taxing or too expansive in scope. You could also refuse if the material(s), info, or data requested is eternally lost, or is privileged in nature. (Think attorney-client, executive, or physician-patient privilege.) Another avoidance tactic for a subpoena in criminal cases is asserting it violates your Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate yourself. (This, however, would still require you to show up, you just wouldn’t have to answer questions). Of course, these efforts aren’t always successful, and the subpoena could still be enforced.

In short, Nunberg’s defense of “screw that” without anything to back it up, is not a proper excuse.

In the latest reporting on Nunberg, apparently he’s indicated he will now cooperate with Mueller and comply with the subpoena.

Subpoenas are serious legal documents and always require serious legal advice. It’s important to seek counsel from a trusted attorney if you get served with a subpoena, most especially if you want to deny a subpoena request.

chess board

Applicability of this Knowledge to Nonprofits

You may be thinking, “wow, this is all really interesting, and thanks so much, but what the heck does this have to do with nonprofits?”

It’s true that the mission of Gordon Fischer Law Firm is to promote and maximize charitable giving in Iowa.

Realize that nonprofits can receive subpoenas, too! And they do!

Remember, as was stated earlier, subpoenas can be issued not only by grand juries, but also by government agencies. So, if a disgruntled ex-employee complains, you might receive a subpoena from, say, OSHA, or the Department of Labor, or the Iowa Civil Rights Commission. It’s critically important that if this happens to you, or your fave nonprofit, you understand all the legal rights and responsibilities by contacting appropriate counsel.

Questions? Thoughts? Tell me in the comments section below or contact me via email or phone (515-371-6077).