person with sparkler spooky

Forget the scariest movies of all time, did you hear the unnerving tale about the will admitted to probate? Frightening stuff!

Some folks are surprised, even shocked, to learn that a will doesn’t avoid probate, but it doesn’t. Whether you die intestate (no will), or even with a will, your estate must pass through Iowa probate court. If you have an estate plan (including a will) this process is much more smooth and simple for your loved ones, because you’ve clearly told them, and the court, how you want your property dispersed. But, even with a basic estate plan, this is still a judicial process. (Plus your will becomes public record when it goes through probate.) The only practical way to avoid probate is through a revocable living trust. The “living”part of this means a trust that is established and funded by you during your lifetime.

Trust in the Trust

A trust can sound somewhat elusive. And you may think it’s reserved just for the very wealthy, like that strange couple that live in the huge, dark mansion on the hill. However, a trust can be an incredibly important tool in many situations and provide multiple advantages.

spooky haunted mansion

Save Time & Money

Time

One of the major benefit of a trust is that it enables your loved ones and your favorite charities—your beneficiaries—to avoid the time and financial costs of probating a will. This is because, upon death, the property and assets are already distributed to the trust. Otherwise the probate process can take anywhere from several months to a more than a year to complete.

Fees

Probate can also be expensive considering fees. Fees and costs can reduce your estate by 4%, or even more. Executor’s fees, and attorney’s fees, are both authorized by Iowa statute to be as high as 2% each, for a total of 4%, and that doesn’t include court costs. While that may not sound like a lot, it can actually equate to a good chunk of money that you would most certainly rather pass along to your heirs or to your favorite charity. Far more often than not, the cost of creating a trust is considerably less expensive than the cost of probate would be.

The Case of Frank E. Stein

bats in the sky

A simple example. Let’s suppose Frank E. Stein’s estate is worth $2 million. This may sound like a lot, and it is, but consider things like a large, expensive house, or a second home, or a vacation home, or a farm, or a family business, can rather easily push an estate into the multi-millions territory. Again, with Frank’s estate worth $2 million, a “shave” of 4% reduces the estate by $80,000. That’s $80,000 that could have gone to Frank’s favorite charity, The Home for Wayward Bats. A revocable living trust, completed by a qualified estate planner, would cost around $2,400.

Privacy

Revocable living trust offers an additional benefit: privacy. When a will is filed with the Iowa probate court upon death, the will becomes a public record. Trusts, on the other hand, remain private documents. You may not want your friends, neighbors, monsters, and others to know the contents of your will. Like all good mysteries, some things are better left a mystery.

Start a Conversation

scary forest path

Considering all the aspects of a trust doesn’t have to feel like a twisty path through a scary forest straight out of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. I’m more than happy and willing to be your guide. Don’t hesitate to reach out; email me at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com or call at (515) 371-6077.

coffee-book-table-word-nerd

In the past I’ve written about specific “legal words of the day” where we take a deep dive into terms that can be confusing, misleading, or unknown. A few of the favorites? Breach of contract, subpoena, and inclusion rider. But, if you’re a word nerd like me, one word or phrase per blog post is not enough! Read on for nine important words related to a key estate planning tool you should know about—trusts.

Trust

To begin, what’s a “trust” itself? No, a trust is not like “I trust you to care for my dog while I’m on summer vacation.” Think more “trust fund kid,” except know that trusts are definitely not just for the wealthy. Trusts can be key to helping you achieve your estate planning (and charitable giving) goals.  At its most basic, a trust is a legal agreement between three parties: the settlor (or grantor), the trustee, and beneficiary. Let’s look at the meaning of these three parties, and then delve more into words which explain how a trust works.

Grantor

All trusts have a grantor, sometimes referred to as the “settlor” or “trustor.” The grantor creates the trust and has legal authority to transfer property to the trust.

Trustee

The trustee is the person who receives the property and accepts the obligation to hold the property for the benefit of the 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. A trustee can be one, two, or many persons.

Corporate Trustee

There is a specific type of trustee called the corporate trustee. Many banks, other financial institutions, and even a few law firms have trust departments to manage trusts and carry out duties of trustees. These are professional trustees (so they should be very good at their roles) and charge fees for services rendered.

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 grantor 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 has been set up yet).

Concurrent Interests or Successive Interests

In cases of multiple beneficiaries, the beneficiaries may hold concurrent interests or successive interests. An example of concurrent interests is a group of beneficiaries identified as grandchildren of the grantors, who all receive distributions after their grandparents’ deaths. An example of successive interests is a trust in which one beneficiary has an interest for a term of years, and the other beneficiary holds a future interest, to become possessory only after the present interest terminates.

Principal, or Corpus, or Res

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

Inter Vivos Trusts and Testamentary Trusts

One common way to describe trusts is by their relationship to the life of their grantor. Those created while the grantor is alive are referred to as inter vivos trusts or living trusts. Trusts created after the grantor has died are called testamentary trusts.

Probate

A major benefit of trusts is avoiding “probate.” Probate is a court process that involves filing the will and a petition in probate court, followed by an inventory, property appraisal, totaling of owed debts and taxes, and payments of court costs and attorney’s and executor’s fees. After all of that is finished what’s left goes to the grantor’s beneficiaries. The estate of any decedent, whether s/he had a will or did not have a will, has to go through probate. A funded living trust can be a smart way to have your estate avoid the probate process. How does this work? Upon death the trustee simply distributes the assets within the trust as directed by the grantor. The caveat is that the property must be transferred to the trust.

Language lesson done for the day!

Beyond these important words, you should also know that trusts can have great utility in estate planning.

Among many other benefits, trusts have the advantages of:

  • saving money, including probate costs and other taxes and fees;
  • being extremely flexible;
  • efficiently moving assets to your heirs and beneficiaries; and
  • privacy.

Do you have an estate plan? Have you thought about a trust? I offer a free one-hour consultation,  please always feel free to email me at gordon@gordonfischerlafirm.com or call me at 515-371-6077.

What’s the most interesting estate planning-related word you’ve learned? Share it in the comments below!

love in lights

Valentine’s Day is coming up quick and while I think the commercialized messages of “this is love” can get a little cheesy, I’m a full supporter of a day that celebrates love. Be it love for your spouse, a celebration of the fact that you are awesome, or showing even more adoration for you furry best friend, the world could always use a little more love. In this important addition to the #PlanningForLove series, let’s talk about ways you can show love to your children through you estate plan.

I’ve discussed the importance of guardianship quite a bit on this blog. It’s important that anyone with minor children establish guardianship so that if something were to happen to you as a legal guardian that your minor children (under age 18) would be immediately placed in the care of someone you know, trust, and most importantly, choose. Just as establishing guardianship is a powerful gift that your children will hopefully never have to actually know about or experience, a testamentary trust can also continue to provide and support your children if something were to happen to you.

There are an almost endless number of different kind of trusts and you can put just about any asset in a trust. Testamentary trusts are one of the most common kind of trusts I establish for my clients. You may recognize the first word of the type of trust from “last will and testament.” Indeed, a testamentary trust is a trust written into your will and provides for the distribution of a portion or all of your estate.

Sounds simple enough, but you’re thinking, “What does this have to do with my kids?”

Different from an inter vivos trust, which is established during the settlor‘s lifetime, the testamentary trust kicks in at the completion of the probate process after the death of the person who has created it for the benefit of their beneficiaries.

Typically testamentary trusts are created for minor children or others (such as a relative with some kinds of disabilities) who may inherit a large amount of money if you (the testator) were to pass away. The general thinking is that you may not want a minor child, or even a young adult, to have uninhibited access to their inheritance until a certain age (and presumed level of maturity) is reached. (I can imagine what I would have done with an inheritance at, say, age 18 and it surely wouldn’t have been the smartest use of money!) The testamentary trust then terminates at whatever age you choose, at which point your beneficiaries receive their inheritances outright and can use the funds in any way they choose.

 

child with red heart

The testator can choose distribution to be distributed in percentages such as 25% at age 18, 25% at age 22, and the remaining 50% at age 25. Or, the trust funds may be distributed in full at a single age. (All at age 25 is the default if the testator doesn’t choose otherwise.) Distributions can also be made immediately upon your passing if all beneficiaries are legal adults (age 18 or older). The testamentary trust could also be set-up for disbursements around milestones, such as a percentage or full disbursement when the beneficiary graduates from an accredited two- or four-year college institution.

Testamentary Trustee

With a testamentary trust you also need to designate a trustee. The trustee is responsible for managing the trust property according to the rules outlined in the trust document, and must do so in the best interests of the beneficiary (for example, a minor child). Generally I advise the appointed guardian also be the trustee of a child’s testamentary trust.

Testamentary Trust Options

In my Estate Plan Questionnaire I offer clients three main options for testamentary trust organization. (Note that there can be more than one testamentary trust created in one will.)

  • Option 1: Separate trust fund for each beneficiary. Each beneficiary’s inheritance to be held by the trustee in a separate fund. Whatever is left in each beneficiary’s trust fund, if anything, will be distributed to that beneficiary when they attain the age(s) indicated in the following section. This option ensures that all of your beneficiaries are treated equally, regardless of needs.
  • Option 2: Single trust fund for multiple beneficiaries. The entire inheritance will be held by the trustee in a single trust fund for the benefit of multiple beneficiaries (such as multiple children). The trustee may make unequal distributions during the term of the trust if a beneficiary needs additional assistance. Whatever is left in the trust, if anything, will be distributed equally when your youngest beneficiary attains the age(s) indicated in the following section. This option will allow the trustee to accommodate a particular beneficiary’s needs by distributing more of the inheritance to that beneficiary during the term of the trust. (Recommended with younger beneficiaries.)
  • Option 3: No delayed distribution. Beneficiary’s inheritance may be made directly to the beneficiary or a court-appointed conservator if beneficiary is a minor/incapacitated. Funds will be distributed directly to the beneficiary at the age of 18.

 

Mom and daughter hugging

The important takeaway from all of this is that a testamentary trust can be entirely personalized to fit your wishes. For example, most folks want the testamentary trust written in such a way that their beneficiaries may have access to funds to pay for higher education costs like tuition, room and board, books, and fees, on top of the necessary funds needed for an adequate standard of care, protection, support, and maintenance of the beneficiary.

Estate Plan Revisions & Updates

If you already have an estate plan review it. Estate plans never expire, but major life events or a change in estate planning goals can necessitate changes. For example, if your family welcomed a new baby or adopted a child then it’s definitely time for update your estate plan to include them! Maybe something changes in the future with one of your beneficiaries and you want to change distribution percentages or ages? Simply contact your estate planning attorney and let them know your wishes.

A Lasting Love

 

hearts on a string

The love for your children knows no bounds and without a doubt you want to make certain you can still provide for them if something unexpected were to happen to you. There’s no day like today (or Valentine’s Day!) to get your ducks in a row just in case. The best place to begin is with my Estate Plan Questionnaire or by contacting me.

animal care trust dog in lap

This current series leading up to Valentine’s Day is all about love and how that love can translate to estate planning. Thus far we’ve covered the best V-Day gift to give your spouse, advice on where to store your estate plan (and it’s not a chocolate heart box!), and how an affinity for football makes understanding estate planning easy. Romance and gift guides aside, this #PlanningForLove series would be incomplete without featuring the love for your pet.

Let’s be for real for a minute. The relationships we have with our pet(s), be they a dog, cat, amphibian, pocket piglet, parrot, or pony are some of the most comforting and consistent. Who else will lick your face, eat snacks out of your hand, demand belly rubs, or get the most Instagram likes? Our pets are a part of our family and it only makes sense to include them in estate planning documents and decisions concerned with the continued care for our loved ones.

 

cat with flowers

The best way to include your furry and feathered friends in your estate plan is with an animal care trust (sometimes known as a pet trust). This is a special kind of trust different from a living revocable trust or an inter vivos trust. An animal care trust specifically provides for the care of your pet in the event that something were to happen to you. In the trust you’ll likely want include the following information:

  • Sufficiently identify your pets and include a provision that describes your pets as a class through phrasing such as  “the pet(s) owned by me at the time of my death or disability.”
  • Describe your pet’s standard of living, care, and include any regular and special instructions. You can get as specific or general as you want at this point. For example, if your bird only likes a particular brand/type of food, or your dog thrives when she plays catch once a day, this can be specified in a trust agreement. If you want your pet to visit the veterinarian for check-ups three times a year, this can also be written in.
  • Determine the amount of funding that’s needed to adequately cover the expenses for your pet’s care. Generally, this figure can’t exceed what may reasonably be required given your pet’s standard of living.
  • Designate a trustee, caregiver, and remainder beneficiary. Also designate successor trustees and caregivers if for some reason either becomes unable or unwilling to fulfill their role. The remainder beneficiary is who receives the trust assets if trust funding outlives the beneficiary (your pet).
  • Specify how the funding should be distributed to the caregiver from the trust.
  • Provide instructions and wishes for the final disposition of your pet (for example, via burial or cremation).

Check out and feel free to share this infographic with your fellow pet parents. (Click here to download the pdf version.)

 

gordon fischer law firm animal care trust

Valentine’s Day is coming up, so let’s discuss how to show your continued love for your pets even if something were to happen to you. Contact me via email of phone (515-371-6077).

wealthy dollar bills

There is a rumor that has been floating around that only the rich need estate planning. That is extremely false. Everyone needs an estate plan, but the wealthy don’t need estate planning as much as the middle-class and working-class folks. If this contradicts everything you’ve ever thought about estate planning allow me to explain.

The Case of Kingston Lear

Suppose Kingston Lear (get it?!), a wealthy Iowan, decides he doesn’t need a qualified and experienced estate planner, he can do it himself, or use an online, one-size-fits-all service. Hey, Lear figures, this way he’s saving both time and money. Also, nothing is going to happen to him for a while, he can get around to doing a proper estate plan with a proper estate planning professional “someday.”

Of course, “someday” never comes, but Lear’s death does. His three daughters are aghast that Lear has no real estate plan. The template resembling an estate plan is completely inadequate for the size and complexity of Lear’s assets.

A Matter of Trusts

Lear could have easily, with the help of a professional advisor, set up a trust (even a plain, “vanilla” revocable living trust would have worked) to avoid probate. But, the online service he used didn’t even explain the difference between wills and trusts. So, Lear’s assets all must go through probate. This means that the time and money Lear though he was saving is gone in a flash.

Probate Costs and Fees, If You Please

Probate fees are going to equate to at least 2% cut of Lear’s estate. Remember, Lear’s estate is large and complex and valued at $10 million, so the actual figure is probably going to be more like four percent.

Using 4% as the figure for probate fees means a loss of $40,000 ($10 million X .04 = $400,000). This is $400,000 that could have been passed down to his daughters through a trust, or split generously between his heirs and charitable organizations near and dear to Lear’s heart.

Also, court costs may amount to another 1%, or loss of $10,000 more ($10 million X .01 = $100,000).

Loss of Privacy

Another major benefit of a trust—again, not explained to Lear because didn’t seek any individualized advice—is privacy. A will (or most any document that goes through probate, absent very special circumstances) is simply a public document. Anyone can read, copy, share, and write about it.

Consider one of Lear’s major assets was an ongoing business—a Shakespearean-themed jousting complex, where families could have fun practicing jousting.

 

horses at fence

Unfortunately, in some of the probate papers, it was disclosed that there had been numerous complaints by the Iowa Horse Association about the treatment of horses. It isn’t long until this hits the blogs, and some of the more sensational aspects of the report (though hotly disputed) goes viral. The jousting park which had been quite profitable, is now eschewed by all the good people of the area. The daughters are forced to sell the business asset to preserve the family’s good name (or what’s left of it) and sell at a loss. While the jousting park had been worth as much as $1 million, the daughters have to sell, so there’s a “paper loss,” but nonetheless less a loss, of another $900,000.

Loss of Future Profits

The $900,000 is a conservative figure; it doesn’t include lost future profits. If not for the scandal becoming public, who knows how long the jousting park could have remained really popular and this profitable. Years? Decades? It’s quite difficult to quantify, but it’s certainly probable that there are some lost profits. The question is: how much?

Costs of Cases

Because Lear’s will wasn’t drafted by professional, there are many ambiguities and loopholes. It’s not long before the three daughters begin fighting and, with unclear direction from their father, they wind up suing each other.

Taking a court case all the way to trial can easily mean $50,000 in attorney’s fees, plus each daughter will want and need her own attorney. So, another $150,000 is lost to attorney’s fees!

Total Losses Equal?

Lear could have had his estate plan done by an Iowa professional for a few thousand dollars. Instead, he lost a total far greater than that:

  • Probate Fees: $400,000
  • Probate Court Costs: $100,000
  • Loss on Sale of Jousting Park: $900,000
  • Loss of Future Profits of Jousting Park: Incalculable?
  • Attorney’s Fees for Daughters’ Litigation $150,000

This is a hit for the inheritance of $1.55 million, leaving $8.5 million (rounded up), or a little less than $3 million per daughter. But you know what? That still leaves an inheritance of $8.5 million to be split amongst three sisters.

The Rich Can Afford Bad Estate Planning

 

crown silver

Lear acted unwisely, arguably recklessly! A great deal of his money was wasted that could have been used for great charitable work in Iowa through local nonprofit organizations. But, for all his foolishness, Lear’s daughters still end up with $3 million each. Will the daughters incur much suffering with “only” $3 million? No.

That the rub; the rich can afford to make big (and small) estate planning mistakes.

You Can’t Afford Bad Estate Planning

Let’s look at this from a normal Iowan perspective. At least 2% in probate costs and fees, a huge drop in value in a key asset, attorney’s fees for litigation…can a middle-class estate merely shrug these kinds of losses off? Not a chance.

The rich aren’t like you and me. They can badly botch estate planning. You and I can’t afford to make mistakes with our estates; there’s not room (and not enough money!) for error.

Need an estate plan but aren’t sure where to start? It’s easy from start to finish. Fill out my obligation-free Estate Plan Questionnaire or contact me.

I KEEP six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.– Rudyard Kipling

I’ll use all six “serving men”—what, why, when, how, where, and who, albeit sometimes in slightly different order—to explain three broad topics: (1) estate planning; (2) trusts; and (3) business succession planning. If you’re unsure of any of the three topics listed, this is the blog post for you.

man taking notes in notebook

WHAT is an Estate Plan, Anyway?

What do we talk about when we talk about estate planning? There are six documents that should be part of everyone’s estate plan. Additionally, you should also keep these six documents updated and current. It’s also important you take note of assets with beneficiary designations (such as those on IRAs and bank accounts).

WHO Needs an Estate Plan? Everyone!

Everyone needs an estate plan. If you’re young, healthy, unmarried, have no children, and have no significant or unusual assets, perhaps you could talk me into the idea that you don’t entirely need an estate plan. Even in such exceedingly rare cases, I strongly recommend making sure your beneficiary designations are completed and up-to-date.

For example, beneficiary designations can be found on your checking and savings accounts and on your retirement benefit plan. But, if you’re married, and/or have kids, and/or have significant or unusual assets, and/or own part or all of a business, you most definitely need an estate plan.

WHY Do You Need an Estate Plan?

Estate planning is not exactly material for scintillating conversation. In fact, I’d bet most of us like to avoid this topic because it can be confusing, and requires lots of decision-making. And, yes, it forces one to think about the mortality of loved ones and the self. Estate planning, after all, is a roadmap about what you want to happen after you move on from this life. While it may not be a fun topic, it is indeed a necessary one. If you die without an estate plan, there are several negative consequences.

Without an estate plan, you cannot choose who receives your estate assets.

If you die without a will, you leave the decision of who will receive your property, in what amount, and when up to the Iowa legislature and/or Iowa courts. With this situation there is always the very real possibility that the distribution of your estate will be greatly different than if you had chosen it through an estate plan.

Without an estate plan, you cannot choose a guardian for your minor children.

If you die without an estate plan, Iowa courts will choose guardians for your children. One of the most important aspects of a will is that it allows you to designate who will be the guardian for your children. This can ensure that your children are cared for by the person that you want, not who the court chooses for you.

Without an estate plan, Iowa courts will choose your estate’s executor.

If you die without an estate plan, the probate court is forced to name an executor. The executor of your estate handles tasks like paying your creditors and distributing the rest of your assets to your heirs. If the probate court has to pick who will be your estate’s executor, there is always a chance that you would not have approved of that person if you had been alive. If you have an estate plan, your will names a trusted executor who will carry out all of your final wishes, pay your bills, and distribute your assets as you intended.

Without an estate plan, you can’t help your favorite nonprofits.

If you die without an estate plan, all your assets— house, savings, retirement plans, and so on—will pass to your heirs at law as specified under Iowa’s statutes. If you have an estate plan, you can include gifts to your favorite nonprofits and see that they are helped for many years to come.

HOW Do You Structure Your Estate Plan?

light bulb on post-it note

Again, there are six basic documents that should be part of everyone’s estate plan:

  1. Estate Planning Questionnaire
  2. Last will and testament
  3. Power of attorney for health care
  4. Power of attorney for finance
  5. Disposition of personal property
  6. Disposition of final remains

We’ll go through each document briefly, so you have a sense of what each entails.

Estate Planning Questionnaire

Estate planning involves facing heavy questions, and depending on the amount of assets and beneficiaries you have, may take quite a bit of time and thought. I recommend clients (and even those who aren’t my clients) complete an Estate Plan Questionnaire. An Estate Plan Questionnaire is a simple way to get all of your information in one place, and makes it easier for your attorney to build your estate plan.

As with any project, it helps “to begin with the end in mind.” A questionnaire can help get you there.

hand holding orb

Last Will and Testament

Now let’s discuss your last will and testament. In sum, you’ll be answering three major questions:

Q1. Who do you want to have your stuff?

This includes both tangible and intangible things. An example of a tangible item would be your coin collection. An example of an intangible asset would be stocks.

Q2. Who do you want to be in charge of carrying out your wishes as expressed in the will?

The “executor” is the person who will be responsible for making sure the will is carried out as written.

Q.3. If you have kids under age 18: who do you want to take care of your minor children?

You’ll want to designate a legal guardian(s) who will take care of your minor children until they are adults.

Power of Attorney for Health Care

A power of attorney (POA) for health care designates someone to handle your healthcare decisions for you if you become unable to make those decisions for yourself. A healthcare POA can govern any kind of decision that is related to your health that you want to address. A healthcare POA may include decisions related to organ donation, hospitalization, treatment in a nursing home, home health care, psychiatric treatment, and more.

For example, if you don’t want to be kept alive with machines, you can make this clear in your POA for healthcare. But, keep in mind your POA for health care isn’t just about end-of-life decisions, again, it can cover any medical situation.

Power of Attorney for Finance

The power of attorney for financial matters is similar to the health care document just discussed, only your designated agent has the power to make decisions and act on your behalf when it comes to your finances. This gives them the authority to pay bills, settle debts, sell property, or anything else that needs to be done if you become incapacitated and unable to do this yourself.

It might be obvious by now, but I’ll state it just in case: choosing an agent for a power of attorney requires that you think long and hard about who would be best suited for the job and who can be trusted.

woman on laptop on patio

Disposition of Personal Property

Now, let’s get to the disposition of the personal property. This is where you get specific about items you want particular people to have. If you’re leaving everything to one or two people, then you may not need to fill this out. But, if you know you want your niece Beth to have a specific piece of jewelry, and your cousin Karl to have that bookshelf he loved, then you’d say so in this document.

Disposition of Final Remains

The disposition of final remains document is where you get to tell your loved ones exactly how you want your body to be treated after you pass away. It can be as general as simply saying “I want to be cremated and scattered in my garden,” or it can be specific and include details of plots you’ve already purchased or arrangements you’ve already made.

Beneficiary Designations

Along with the six basic estate planning documents, don’t forget about your assets with beneficiary designations.

Common accounts with beneficiary designations include savings and checking accounts, life insurance, annuities, 401(k)s, pensions, and IRAs are all transferred via beneficiary designations. These beneficiary designations actually trump your will!

Regarding assets with beneficiary designations, you must make sure that designations are correctly filled out and supplied to appropriate institution. Remember to keep these beneficiary designations updated and current.

WHEN Do You Update Your Estate Plan?

Let’s say you’ve gone to an estate planning lawyer, and these six basic estate planning documents have been drafted and signed. What else? You need to keep these documents updated and current. If you undergo a major life event, you may well want to revisit with your estate planning lawyer, to see if this life event requires changing your estate planning documents.

What do I mean by a major life event? Some common events would include:

  • Selling or buying land
  • Birth or adoption of a child or grandchild
  • Marriage or divorce
  • Illness or disability of your spouse
  • Purchasing a home or other large asset
  • Moving to another state
  • Large increases or decreases in the value of assets, such as investments
  • If you or your spouse receives a large inheritance or gift
  • If any family member, or other heir, dies, becomes ill, or is incapacitated

This is just a short list of life events that should cause you to reconsider your estate plan. There are many others; if you think you might have undergone a major life event, check with your estate planning lawyer.

WHERE Do You Keep Your Estate Plan?

You should store your estate planning documents in a safe place, such as a fireproof safe at home, or a safety-deposit box. Another option in our digital era is storage on the “cloud.” Just make sure the important agents under your estate plan—say, for example, the executor of your will, or power of attorney representative—can access the documents if and when the need arises. For most folks, that’s enough: the six documents, keeping the documents current, and remembering about those assets with beneficiary designations.

Wait a second…what do you mean by “for most folks, that’s enough?” Indeed, for most Iowans what I’ve outlined here is enough. There may be folks who have more that $5 million in assets, or who have complex assets (for example, more than one piece of real estate), or own part or all of a robust business, or otherwise have unusual situations. In such cases, a trust may be helpful. That’s considered more “advanced” estate planning and will mean additional conversations and collaboration on what estate planning tools work best for the situation.

See? That wasn’t so bad!

Whether it’s complicated or simple, it does require some thought and time. But, it’s worth the investment. A proper estate plan can save you and your estate costs and fees, help your family and friends, and provide you peace of mind.

Perhaps most importantly, through proper estate planning you can help your favorite charities in ways large and small.

Do you have an estate plan? Why or why not? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below. You can reach me at any time at 515-371-6077 or gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com.

Everyone has unique needs and thus every estate plan needs to be personalized. Online templates for estate plans won’t cover the nuances of your life, wishes, and assets. The best place to start on your personalized estate plan is with my Estate Planning Questionnaire.

Someone pointing into the sunset

Estate planning allows people to elect tools and strategies that makes life for their loved ones as uncomplicated as possible following death. Almost everyone I work with wants to ensure their family members are set up for success.

Dad holding daughter

One such estate planning tool to accomplish this is the handy dandy trust. There are almost limitless different types of trusts; trusts may be classified by their purpose, duration, creation method, or by the nature of the trust property. For instance, there is the fairly common “animal care” or “pet” trust. You can also place almost any asset imaginable in a trust.

For some parents looking to help a son or daughter (minor or adult) with special needs, a trust can be a powerful avenue to continuing to support the loved one. (In this trust situation the child would be the beneficiary of the trust, the parents would be the settlor, and a trustee would be assigned.) Why? In general, the idea is that a special needs trust can use estate assets to enrich and enhance the child’s life while maintaining the individual’s viability for enrollment in public benefits programs. Examples of assistance programs can include Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Medicaid, subsidized housing, and vocational rehabilitation, among others.

Smart estate planning for special needs ensures that the parts of the estate which pass on to the individual with special needs are NOT considered an “available asset” by the associated agencies that disperse essential benefits. Many people make the mistake of leaving assets to a loved one with a disability through a will. This is problematic because acquiring assets, such as a significant lump sum of money, can disqualify your loved one from certain government assistance programs. By setting up a special needs trust, instead of solely using a will, you can avoid these issues. How? Because the trustee has total control over the management of the funds, and the beneficiary does not, government program administrators, like the ones from SSI and Medicaid, don’t “count” the trust assets when considering eligibility.

Rose in hand

Beyond protecting the beneficiary’s eligibility for public benefits a special needs trust can also:

  • offer assured lifelong money management for the child; and/or
  • establish a pool of of available funds in the future event that public benefits should be restricted or revoked.

It’s important to remember that details of each special needs trust will vary depending on factors like the beneficiary’s age, competency, and familial situation. Also, because of the complexities involved, special needs trusts require extremely careful drafting. So, If you’re even considering establishing a special needs trust as a part of your estate plan, it’s definitely necessary to speak with an experienced estate planning professional to make sure all of the nuances of the trust are executed properly.

Don’t hesitate to contact me with questions via email (gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com) or on my cell phone at 515-371-6077.

Stacked books and notebook

What’s It All For?

In Hamilton: An American Musical, a perplexed Alexander Hamilton asks Aaron Burr, “What was it all for?” Regarding trusts, we know that all the work is for the beneficiary.

Classic Definition of “Trust” and “Beneficiary”

A trust is created when a property owner transfers property to a person with the intent that the recipient hold the property for the benefit of someone else. There are three parties to a trust: (1) the settlor (also called donor or grantor); (2) the trustee; and (3) the beneficiary. Every trust must have at least one beneficiary – a person for whose benefit the trust property is being held and who therefore has legal rights to enforce the trust.

Beneficiaries Must Be Sufficiently Definite

 

two people standing against white wall laughing

The beneficiaries must be described with sufficient detail that their identities can be determined. If the description of the beneficiaries is too vague or indefinite, then the trust will fail and the property will be returned to either the settlor or the settlor’s estate.

Let’s take two simple examples.

  • Alan establishes a trust for the benefit of his then-living children. The beneficiaries are sufficiently definite.
  • Sara establishes a trust for the benefit of all her friends. The beneficiaries are insufficiently definite.

Easy, right?

Exception: Charitable Trusts

There is one narrow, but critically important exception to the rule beneficiaries of a trust must be sufficiently definite. Charitable trusts–trusts established to fulfill a recognized charitable purpose – can be for the benefit of an indefinite group. For example, a charitable trust set up to provide scholarships to disadvantaged youth will be held valid.

Multiple Beneficiaries: Concurrent Interests or Successive Interests

Trusts can have more than one beneficiary and they commonly do. In cases of multiple beneficiaries, the beneficiaries may hold concurrent interests or successive interests. An example of concurrent interests is a group of beneficiaries identified as grandchildren of the settlor, who all receive distributions after their grandparents’ deaths. An example of successive interests is a trust in which one beneficiary has an interest for a term of years, and the other beneficiary holds a future interest, to become possessory only after the present interest terminates.

 

dad swinging children on beach

Special Remedies for Beneficiaries

There are several remedies available to an aggrieved beneficiary in the event of a breach of trust by a trustee. Such remedies include claims for damages, injunction to restrain a breach, tracing and/or recovery of trust property, among others. A beneficiary may be able to recoup damages, perhaps even from the trustee’s personal assets. If the trustee wrongfully disposes of trust property, the beneficiaries may be able to reclaim the property from a third party. Again, legal remedies for a breach of trust by a trustee are broad.

Let’s Talk More About Trust Beneficiaries

Interested in establishing a trust or having difficulty deciding on beneficiaries? Don’t hesitate to reach out; email me at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com. I offer a free one-hour consultation to everyone, without any obligation. I’d be happy to talk to you any time.

question mark cards

Similar to the bad joke, “When is a door not a door? When it’s a jar!” Ha! Similarly, but not as punny, we might well say, “When is a trust not a trust? When it’s a Totten trust!”

A Totten trust, also known as a savings account trust or a poor man’s will, is not a trust at all. Rather a Totten trust is simply a name given to a type of savings account. In this savings account, the depositor opens an account with her name designated “as trustee for” someone else. In a Totten trust, there is nothing stopping the depositor from withdrawing the funds for her own use, at any time during her life. Upon her death, any funds remaining are distributed to the so-called “beneficiary.”

Despite the confusing terms, no trust exists. The so-called “trustee” is not obligated to hold the property for the benefit of anyone, including the so-called beneficiary. Rather, the depositor can withdraw funds for her own use at any time during her life.

A Bit of History

The name—Totten trust—came from a New York case where their legality was tested, called In re Totten. The court ruled it was fine for one to open a banking account as a trustee for another person, who had not right to the funds until the account owner passed away. Previously courts had not allowed this under the objection that the situation could take the place of a will, which required more formality than this bank account scenario. To legally maneuver around this the Totten court called the account a “tentative trust” in which the account owner acts as trustee of the funds that will someday go to the trust’s beneficiary. After this decision other state legislatures authorized and regulated such accounts. Often they were referred to payable-on-death accounts in lieu of the term Totten trusts, but regardless of name, the result is the same.

Iowa & Totten Trusts

In states like Iowa, where Totten trusts are recognized, the proceeds for the account pass to the named beneficiary outside of the probate process. The treatment is just like a POD (“payable on death”) account or TOD (“transfer on death”) account.

Iowa recognizes Totten trusts generally, but specifically excludes them from the Iowa Trust Code. Iowa law describes legal trusts as follows:

Trust’ means an express trust, charitable or noncharitable, with additions thereto, wherever and however created, including a trust created or determined by a judgment or decree under which the trust is to be administered in the manner of an express trust. ‘Trust’ does not include [a] Totten trust account. Iowa Code 633A.1102(18)(a) (emphasis added).

When is a trust not a trust? Hopefully, thanks to this blog post, you now know that Totten trusts are not true trusts. I’ve written quite a bit on real trusts and would be happy to talk with you about what sort of trust may be right for you. Give me a call at or shoot me an email.