this week calendar

Believe it or not, National Estate Planning Awareness Week is a very real thing and we’re celebrating October 15-21! Let’s kick it off with a brief history on the Week and estate planning in general.

Background on National Estate Planning Awareness Week

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

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

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

Time Warp: A Brief History of Estate Planning

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

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

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

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

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

Estate Planning in the United States

 

Statue of Liberty

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

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

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

Final Footnote

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


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

Gordon Fischer at desk

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

estate plan rate sheet

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

Cost of estate plan as an issue

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

One Size Does NOT Fit All

 

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

clothes on hanger

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

Let’s Talk About Your EPQ

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

Only Then, My Bill

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

change and wallet on table

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

Halloween pumpkin

What makes a will valid? To begin, you are asking the entirely wrong question! [Cue evil sounding mwahahahaha.]

You must ask a more specific question what makes a will valid in Iowa. After all, every state can and does have different laws for a will’s validity, as well as for probate, trusts, and so on.

Iowa law has several requirements (sometimes called formalities) which must be present for a will to be legal and binding. If you miss even one formality–yes, even one!–you run the risk of your will being declared “dead.” Forever dead and invalid…which sounds like a nightmare for your loved ones.

In Writing (Can Be Blood or Ink)

ink and paper

Iowa law requires a will to be in writing. That means any oral statement of the decedent doesn’t count. This is true even if the oral statement(s) relate(s) directly to naming people who should inherit specific property. (Note that there’s a slight, teeny tiny exception to this for gifts causa mortis. But, these are super specific, situational, limited, and rare.)

Even a statement about passing of property recorded by audio or video cannot constitute a valid will.

Testatrix or Treat?

The person making the will must sign it, or direct some other person to sign the will in his or her presence. Lawyers call the person who makes the will either a testator (male) or testatrix (female).

Two Witnesses to Tell the Tale

Two witnesses to the will’s signing are also required. The person making the will, in the presence of the two people acting as witnesses, must declare the document is his/her will and request the two people to sign the document as witnesses. Then the witnesses must sign in the presence of each other, and in the presence of the testator/testatrix.

two people signing

Bearing Witness

There are also standards for being a qualified witness. A witness must be at least 16 years old and be mentally competent. A person who receives property under terms of the will may be a witness, but that person will have to forfeit any amount in excess of what s/he would receive if there were no will.

Are You Competent?

A will is valid only if the person making the will has sufficient competency at the time the will is made. In this situation, “competency” has two prongs: the testator must be of full age AND sound mind.

Full age simply means legal majority, which is age 18 (or 17 and married).

Is your mind sound?

All I can imagine with the phrase “sound mind” is the mad scientist saying “brainssss, brainsss!” But, is “sound mind” a real thing? Yes!

glass brain

A testator must indeed be of sound mind. The testator/testatrix has sufficient mental capacity if s/he:

  1. understands the nature of the instrument s/he is executing;
  2. knows and understands the nature and extent of his or her property;
  3. remembers the natural objects of his or her bounty; and
  4. knows the distribution s/he wants to make.

If s/he is unable to meet any one of these tests she cannot make a valid will. The mental capacity must exist at the actual time of the making of the will.

Did you say “natural objects of bounty?”

The natural objects of his or her bounty is a fancy legal phrase. Essentially this refers to a spouse and children, if any, or other close family members; the maker of the will should generally know and recognize his or her natural heirs.

Low Standards

This test of mental capacity is not a particularly high standard to meet. The Iowa Supreme Court declared:

“Ability to transact business, generally, is not essential to testamentary capacity. Advanced age, failure of memory, senile dementia not shown to render the testatrix of insufficient mental capacity to understand the nature of the act, to recollect the extent of her property and the natural objects of her bounty and their claims upon her, and to comprehend the manner in which she wishes her property distributed, childishness, mental weakness, and old age are not, of themselves, sufficient to deprive her of testamentary capacity.” Walters v. Heaton, 271 N.W. 310, 313 (Iowa 1937). (Note that the court’s decision was related to a female, hence the she/her, but, this standard undoubtedly applies to all will-makers in Iowa!)


Are you frightened to death of making a mistake with your will? Never fear! A qualified attorney can help guide you around the sticky spiderwebs and swamps of estate law. Email me at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com or call me on my cell at 515-371-6077. I’d be happy to offer you a one-hour free consultation!

scary jack-o-lantern

It’s the season for everything pumpkin, Hocus Pocus reruns, and “accidentally” eating all the trick-or-treat candy before the actual trick-or-treaters arrive. It’s the time when I’m reminded that the scariest notion of all is not Dracula, ghosts, or even the overpriced costumes, but rather the downright terrifying reality that nearly every six out of 10 Americans do not have estate planning documents in place. Yikes. Despite the numerous benefits, advantages, and financial savings that comes with a proper estate plan, it’s all too common to push the process off. It’s like the equivalent of the dusty, cobwebby attic of your to-do list. Here are five scary excuses I’ve heard as to why people procrastinate creating an estate plan:

I’ll be dead, so I won’t be around to care.

Downright hair-raising!

A friend’s mother said this when my friend brought up estate planning. The mother has a point…I guess. Yes, after she dies she won’t be able to “care” about where her assets go. However, most of us would like to have a set plan of where our hard-earned money and personal property will go and to whom. Why? Because we care while we’re living and like to think we’re taking care of the ones we love even after we’re gone. So, why wouldn’t she (even as an act of love) take a simple measure to save her loved ones money (and time) instead of dealing with the sluggish probate process that would occur if she were to die intestate (without a will)?

graveyard with gravestones

I don’t own enough assets to need an estate plan.

I hear this one all the time and it’s terrifying to think someone would sacrifice their right to pass along their estate (as small or as big as it may be) as they choose. The fact is that having a (small) bank account, minor children, owning a home (of any size), or even having a pet is enough to necessitate estate planning…if even just to be prepared. Of course the larger and more complex the estate, the more tools and documents may be needed, but that’s why you need to have an experienced estate planer to help determine the tools you need.

I don’t have time right now to do estate planning.

Unnerving and chilling. Sure, estate planning doesn’t sound like the most fun thing to deal with on top of everything else you have going on in your life. But, the time it takes to create an estate plan will be significantly less than the time it will cost your family if your estate goes through probate. Additionally, most (good) estate planning attorneys will work around YOUR schedule. They are willing to make house calls and conduct conversations essential to crafting your individualized estate plan over the phone or email—whatever works best for you.

 

It’s too expensive to make an estate plan. 

Eerily wrong. It will almost certainly be more expensive for your family and loved ones if you die intestate (without a will). It will not only cost them monetarily, but also emotionally as the process can be shockingly slow, tedious, and can create unnecessary conflict. Part of living is loving, so show your family, children, friends, and favorite charities the love by taking the time to craft a quality estate plan.

I don’t even know where to start, so I’m not going to.

Getting started on your estate plan is actually incredibly easy, so continuing to make  this excuse is alarmingly unnerving! Use my free (without obligation) Estate Plan Questionnaire. It’s an excellent tool for organizing all the essential information you (and your spouse, if applicable) and your estate planner need to have on hand in order to reach your estate planning goals.


Do any of these sound like you? Fear is for werewolves and zombies, not estate planning! Break the procrastination cycle and contact me via email or phone to discuss your situation.

cloudy moon

DON’T DARE READ THIS ALONE!

Count Dracula needed a new estate plan. After all, the Count hadn’t updated his last will in 1,400 years. After he got over eerily common estate planning excuses, he went to his Iowa estate planner. 

The Iowa estate planner dutifully gathered information about all of Count Dracula’s many assets. While discussing real estate holdings, however, the Iowa estate planner inexplicably failed to inquire as to whether Drac owned real estate with his wife, in any other states.

[Blood curdling screams]

Yes, that’s right: the Iowa estate planner simply forgot to ask about other States, including community property states. This could unfortunately impact the effectiveness of the Drac’s will and the dispersion of Drac’s property.

[Angry mob shouts in disbelief]

spooky castle

Iowa is NOT a Community Property State

The majority of states, including Iowa, are not community property states. There are about a dozen states which are community property states. As explained below, whether a state does or does not follow community property laws can have a huge impact on estate planning.

What are Community Property Laws?

Given our limited space I will only provide the most basic of oversimplifications. Simply put, states with community property follow a rule that all assets acquired during marriage are considered “community property.” While each community property state has its own unique and precise set of characterization rules, they all share the general rule that an asset acquired or given during marriage is presumed to be community property, until it is proven to be separate.

Bride and groom holding hands

Marital property in community property states are owned by both spouses equally (50/50). Marital property includes earnings, all property bought with those earnings, and all debts accrued during marriage. Community property begins as soon as the couple is married and ends when the couple physically separates with the intention of not continuing the marriage.

Spouses may not transfer, alter, or eliminate any whole piece of community property without the other spouse’s permission. A spouse can manage his or her own half the way he or she wishes, but the whole piece includes the other spouse’s one-half interest. In other words, a spouse cannot be alienated from his or her one half.

Death or Divorce in Community Property States

When one spouse passes away, their half of the community property passes to the surviving spouse. Their separate property can be devised to whomever they wish according to their will, or via intestacy statutes without a will. Many community property states offer an interest called “community property with the right of survivorship.” Under this doctrine, if a couple holds title or deed to a piece of property (usually a home), then upon a spouse’s death the title passes automatically to the surviving spouse and avoids probate court proceedings.

If the couple divorces, or obtains a legal separation, all of the community property is divided evenly (50/50). The separate property of each spouse is distributed to the spouse who owns it and is not divided according to the 50/50 rule (but, again, there is a presumption that all property is community property, not separate property).

cert of divorce

Sometimes, economic circumstances warrant awarding certain assets wholly to one spouse, but each spouse still ends up with 50 percent of all community property in terms of total economic value. This is most common regarding marital homes. Since it is not a practical idea to try to divide a house in half, often the court will award one spouse the house, while the other spouse receives other assets with value equal to half the value of the home.

The are exceptions to the equal division rule. The most common and well-known thanks to popular culture is a prenuptial agreement. Before the marriage, the couple may enter into such an agreement that lays out how the marital property shall be divided upon divorce.

Which States have Community Property Laws?

Eight states are considered to be the “traditional community property” states: Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and Washington. Wisconsin is the functional equivalent of a community property state when it adopted the Uniform Marital Property Act in the 1980s. Alaska and Tennessee are elective community property states, meaning spouses may create community property by entering into a community property trust or agreement. 

What About all the Other States?

The other states, the clear majority of states, are called “common law property” states. “ In this case, “common law” is simply a term used to determine the ownership of property acquired during marriage. The common law system provides that property acquired by one member of a married couple is owned completely and solely by that person. Of course, if the title or deed to a piece of property is put in the names of both spouses, then that property would belong to both spouses. If both spouses’ names are on the title, each owns a one-half interest.

Death or Divorce in Common Law Property States

When one spouse passes away, his or her separate property is distributed according to his or her will, or according to intestacy laws without a will. The distribution of marital property depends on how the spouse’s share ownership—the type of ownership.

If spouses own property in “joint tenancy with the right of survivorship” or “tenancy by the entirety,” the property goes to the surviving spouse. This right is actually independent of what the deceased spouse’s will says. However, if the property was owned as “tenancy in common,” then the property can go to someone other than the surviving spouse, per the deceased spouse’s will. Of course, not all property has a title or deed. In such cases, generally, whoever paid for the property or received it as a gift owns it.

 

Man in street looking at house

If the couple divorces, or obtains a legal separation, the court will decide how the marital property will be divided. Of course, just as in community property states, the prenuptial agreement is an option. The couple can enter into agreement before marriage, providing how to divide marital property upon divorce.

Why did the Iowa Estate Planner Forget to Inquire About Real Estate Located in Other States?

Some say evil men were born that way, while others say monsters learn evil. We can only guess. All we can know for sure is that the Iowa  Estate Planner didn’t ask about real estate in other states. And that was terrible.

You Said Iowa Wasn’t a Community Property State. So, why Does it Even Matter?

For at least three reasons a lawyer in a common law state like Iowa needs to have a basic understanding of community property principles.

  1. A client may move to a community property state. Or perhaps there’s a divorce, one party stays in Iowa, the other moves to Washington).
  2. A client may buy property in a community property state. Perhaps the client buys a vacation home in Texas.
  3. The client’s beneficiaries (adult children, for example) may move to a community property state. For example, your daughter marries an Arizonian and they both move to Phoenix.

In all three cases, the distinction between community property and common law states needs to be carefully explained to the client. The estate plan may well need revisions, or even just an extra document or two.

 

Standing over yellow line in road- community property

Mob With Pitchforks Goes After Iowa Estate Planner

Ugly! Don’t let this happen to you. Seek an experienced estate planner, who knows the right questions to ask, and be sure to offer them as much information as you possibly can.

 Questions or Concerns About Community Property ?

Do you have a vacation home in California? Did your son recently elope and the happy couple moved to New Mexico? It may be time to talk about community property and how it impacts YOUR estate plan. Always feel free to email me anytime at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com. Or call my cell at 515-371-6077. I’d be happy to offer you a free one-hour consultation.

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.

hourglass in sand
Here on the GFLF blog we talk a lot about the transfer of property made at the time of death through estate planning tools like a will, disposition of personal property document, or a trust. Everyone needs an estate plan to most effectively and seamlessly transfer real property (think land and real estate) and personal property (think jewelry, art, all of your “stuff”) to the people and charities you care most about. These are all called testamentary gifts. (Think “last will and testament” if that makes it easy to remember.)
As you probably know all too well, you can also make gifts to other people during your lifetime. These are called inter vivos gifts if you want to be lawyerly with it. This one’s easier to think about because you’ve been giving gifts for holidays, birthdays, weddings, and anniversaries regularly. You can also make gifts while living of cash, real estate, land, stocks/bonds, and other non-cash assets to charitable organizations.
One specific type of inter vivos gift doubles down on the Latin–it’s called a gift causa mortis. This type of gift is made by the donor while they’re alive in the event of impending death. Causa mortis in Latin translates to “because of death.” Sometimes this type of gift is referred to as a deathbed gift. The most common kind of gifts causa mortis tend to be small, valuable and/or meaningful gifts like a wedding ring.
To make this more salient, consider the scenario where Abe was in a severe accident and is aware that he is going to pass soon. Abe turns to his son Bob, who rushed him to the ER, and tells him that he wants him to have his watch. He takes it and gives it to his son Bob and then gets rushed into surgery. This is a simple example of a gift causa mortis.
Now, with out amateur Latin lesson complete, let’s dive into the elements of the rules related to gifts causa mortis.
woman blowing on a dandelion

Elements of Gifts Causa Mortis

A valid inter vivos gift involves:

  1. intent by the donor facing imminent to donate;
  2. delivery of the gift; and
  3. acceptance by the donor.

Delivery of the Gift

The gift must be delivered to the recipient. That’s easy if it’s something handheld like jewelry that you’re wearing, but what about anything that the donor doesn’t have on them personally? So long as the “delivery” is sufficiently symbolic, that will suffice if physical delivery at the time of the gifts is impractical.

woman giving white rose

Another Hypothetical

Let’s say a donor wanted to make a gift causa mortis of an antique piece of furniture to their niece. At the time the donor was residing in a hospice facility and very clearly toward the very end of her terminal illness. It would be impractical for the law to expect the dying donor to physical deliver the furniture to her niece. As long as the donor gave the niece a symbolic representation of the gift, such as writing out the details of the furniture’s location and details in the presence of a witness, it would likely be found valid upon the donor’s passing.

Another example that applies arose out of a case where a donor’s delivery was found to be valid where she signed the back of her car’s certificate of title to gift the automobile to her brother.

Can I Get a Witness?

To avoid post-mortem litigation by other heirs-at-law or the decedent’s estate’s executor, it’s preferable if the delivery of the gift is witnessed by a third party who can attest to the validity of the gift. Additionally, if there is an option for a piece of writing to be made out detailing the gifts and signed in the presence of a third party, that’s even better.

Revocable  & Conditional

Gifts causa mortis are revocable, which means that the donor (the gift giver) can revoke the gift at any time (while still alive). This revocation can be completed unilaterally, with only the donor. This is different than an inter-vivos gift, which when completed, is completely irrevocable.
person giving wedding bands
Gifts causa mortis are also conditional on the donor’s death, meaning the gift giver actually has to perish before the donee’s ownership is valid.
Taking it back to our story with Abe and his son Bob: if Abe gave his watch to Bob before surgery with the imminent expectation of dying soon, but ended up living through the surgery, the gift is no longer valid and automatically revoked. Of course, Abe could choose to make an inter-vivos gift to Bob if he decided to do so.
Additionally, if the recipient dies before the donor, then the gift is revoked and the beneficiary’s estate has no claim to the property.

Imminent Death

tombstone close-up
For a valid gift causa mortis, the donor has to die imminently…what constitutes “imminent death?” This has been debated in different cases. What’s clear is the gift giver doesn’t have to die immediately, like seconds after the gift is given. But, the donor must pass away from the danger or condition that was present at the giving of the gift. Plus, it doesn’t “count” if the donor has a fear that they might die at some vague point in the future.
Intervening Recovery
Additionally, there must be no intervening recovery between the gift and death.
Back to our hypothetical: let’s say Abe goes into surgery and survives from the injuries relating to his accident. At this point the gift of the watch is invalid. Abe may unfortunately go on and pass away from a different condition a few months later, but the previous gift causa mortis of the watch is not suddenly valid just because Abe eventually died.

What’s the Difference Between Gifts Causa Mortis and Testamentary Gifts?

Typically gifts causa mortis are informally made in the moment, are not planned to the same extent or formally written out like testamentary gifts. In the majority of states, gifts causa mortis are immediately transferred to the recipient’s ownership after death, whereas gifts made through a will or testamentary trust transfer ownership after the probate process is complete. Additionally, gifts causa mortis can only be made of personal property, not real property like your house or farmland.

How do Gifts Causa Mortis Fit into Taxes?

Similar to testamentary gifts, gifts causa mortis are taxed under federal estate tax law. The policy behind this is because the gifts aren’t complete until the donor’s passing. (Note well that the federal estate tax also applies to general inter vivos gifts made within three years of death. This means the value of such gifts is included in the estate in order to calculate the estate taxes.) It’s also worth noting that the federal estate tax applies to so few people now after the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, so you don’t really to be concerned about this!
dying bouquet of flowers

Final Words on Gifts  Causa Mortis

Gifts Causa Mortis or not, there is no substitute for an airtight, updated estate plan. If you have such a plan in place, there’s no need to try and meet all the elements and intricacies of gifts causa mortis.

None of us know when our time will come, and we may not have the opportunity to give away our prized possessions via causa mortis right before death. But, we can know that estate plans never expire and can give you peace of mind that your property will be pass to the people you intend without legal contest (which can arise from gifts of causa mortis).

No questions are dumb questions when it comes to the complex world of property and estates. Don’t hesitate to contact GFLF or schedule a free consult to get your estate planning needs and goals in order.

Dog in dog house

When you own a dog, every day is a celebration of your furry friend…except maybe when they leave a stain on the new carpet. But, in general, dogs are simply the best friend a human could ask for. They never flake on you, are always there for snuggles, clean up any spilled food under the table, and don’t judge when you drink a bottle of wine while watching sappy romantic comedies.

Today is National Dog Day, and after you’re done posing with your pup on Instagram, contact an estate planner about including Spot in your estate plan! Don’t worry, you don’t need to name your doggo as a beneficiary in your will to include them as a part of your family. There’s a special kind of trust just for animals—known as a pet or animal care trust.

dogs on a dog walker's leash

Top Dog Benefit: Peace of Mind

It’s easy establish, but can make a world of difference for you canine companion if something were to happen to you. Of course, we would all hope that our families or friends would adopt our pets without hesitation and given them all the love in the world. But, for many reasons, that doesn’t always happen. An animal care trust gives you peace of mind that your dog will be provided for if you were to pass away or become incapacitated in a way that prohibits you from fully being able to care sufficiently for the pet.

Animal Care Elements: Consider These Questions

There are just a few key questions you should consider with an animal care trust.

  1. If something happens to you, who do you want to have guardianship of your pet? This caregiver should be a trusted someone that can give ample care and love to your pup. It’s a good idea to name a successor caregiver just in case.
  2. Who do you want to be the trustee of the trust? The trustee is the person who distributes trust funds and ensures that pet’s caregiver follows the owner’s instructions as set out in the trust. For instance, you could designate your mother as the trustee and your brother as the caregiver. You can name a successor trustee if the first individual is unable or unwilling.
  3. Who would you like named as the remainder beneficiary of the trust’s funds? If your pet passes before the trust is exhausted, where would you like the money to go? This is a great opportunity to name an animal care charity which would put the money toward helping more animals!
  4. What is your pet’s standard of care and daily life? What do they like to do? You’ll want to detail things like health care needs (like medicine), food preferences, and activities they love (like playing catch or running alongside a bike). If you want your pet to visit the veterinarian for check-ups every six months, this can also be written in.
  5.  What features (breed/age/color/name) identify your pet? Identifying the dog in detail an prevent a guardian from replacing the original pet as a way of illegally extend trust distributions! (Not that they would…but just in case.)
  6. Do you have a preference for disposition of your dog? This is optional, but you could choose to specify burial under a favorite tree in the backyard, or cremation.
  7. How much money do you want to set aside in the trust? This money is what will be used to provide care for your pet. You’ll also want to specify how the money will be distributed to the caregiver of your animal. Generally, this figure can’t exceed what may reasonably be required given your pet’s standard of living.
  8. Do you want to compensate the caregiver? If you wish, you can compensate the caregiver in their role. Generally, a small monthly or annual stipend is acceptable.

Note that a good estate planner will include “all present and future pets” in the pet trust with some specific verbiage. This is a bit of estate planning insurance, just in case you don’t have the chance to update your pet trust if you add a new animal to your family in the future.

Why Not Just a Will?

One questions I’ve received from pet parents in the past is: why can’t I just include my dog in my will? They have a point and they’re on the right track. Pets are considered personal property, so you can include them in your will with language such as: my daughter will inherit my house and my dog, Spot.

However, a will is a document that facilitates transfers of assets—it doesn’t enforce demands tied to the property. Instructions in a will are unenforceable, there is nothing to stop the pet caregiver to ignoring instructions in a will completely. But, in an animal care trust you can hone in on specific habits and behaviors such as: Spot eat X certain kind of dog food and should be taken to a dog park at least two times a month. If the caregiver didn’t feed Spot a certain kind of dog food or take him to the dog park, the trustee could get the caregiver’s status revoked and the pet would transfer to the successor guardian.

Close up of dog licking camera

Unlike a specific trust, a will doesn’t address the possibility that your pet may need to be cared for by a guardian if you become incapacitated. Additionally, wills go through the probate process and the property transfer is not immediate. Where will the pet reside during this process? If litigation over the estate occurs who is caring for the pet.

Unlike a testamentary trust for children in a will, the document doesn’t allow don’t allow for disbursement of funds over a pet’s lifetime. If you bequest funds to your intended animal guardian it would be distributed all at once and there’s nothing to stop that individual from using the money on themselves and selling your dog.

In terms of opportunity for fund disbursement, specific instructions, and a clear cut contingency plan if your initial named guardian or trustee doesn’t work out, the animal care trust is a superior estate planning tool for your dog.

That all being said, you DEFINITELY need a will as a part of your estate plan. It just doesn’t fully protect your pet’s interests as you may want to.

Tail Wagging Trust

Share this infographic with fellow dog lovers, and let’s discuss how to structure your personalized animal care trust. Contact me via email of phone (515-371-6077) to get started!

money in wallet

We talk about taxes and fees a lot in estate planning because if you don’t have a quality plan in place your estate will likely be hit with taxes and fees to a varying degree. Actual figures depend on the gross value of your estate, what state you lived in, and what strategies you employed (such as a living revocable trust) that help to reduce or even eliminate taxes and fees.

Recently I wrote about one specific tax that only applies to states—the state estate tax. If you don’t have time to read the full post and live in Iowa, the bottom line is that generally you won’t need to worry about it. Unlike places like Minnesota and Illinois, Iowa does not have a state estate tax. However, Iowa DOES have a special “death tax” that only six states in the U.S. have.

What is an Inheritance Tax and how is Different than an Estate Tax?

At first glance the inheritance tax seems mighty similar to the estate tax (both state and federal). Indeed, both are collected after someone’s death. However, an estate tax is assessed by the overall gross value of a person’s estate. This figure totals up all assets passed to all beneficiaries, regardless of their relationship to to the decedent (the person who passed away).

Any estate taxes owed are paid out of the estate assets before beneficiaries receive their distributions. And, the estate executor is responsible for making certain any state or federal estate taxes owed are fulfilled.

The inheritance tax, instead, is a tax levied on assets and property certain beneficiaries have inherit from someone who has died. I say “certain” because in most states the relationship of the beneficiary to the person who died determines if inheritance tax is owed or not. Amount of tax owed is calculated on each eligible beneficiary’s share of the estate and the beneficiary’s relationship to the decedent.

The beneficiary subject to estate taxes is personally responsible for filing the tax. In Iowa this means filling out Form 706 and filing before the due date on the last day of ninth month after death.

Iowa’s Inheritance Tax

The good news in light of all this tax talk is that Iowa’s inheritance tax only applies in certain situations. Not every Iowan who passes away will render their heirs subject to more taxes. For instance, Iowa’s inheritance tax does not apply if the estate is valued at $25,000 or less.

The following, among others, are exempt from Iowa’s inheritance tax:

  • Spouses
  • Beneficiaries who are descendants including children (biological and legally adopted), stepchildren, grandchildren, and great-grand-children.
  • Beneficiaries who are lineal ascendants such as parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents.
  • Life insurance
  • Annuities purchased under a retirement or employee pension plan
  • Assets left to U.S. charitable, religious, and educational organizations

As you can see, most people won’t ever have to deal with Iowa’s inheritance tax. So, who isn’t exempt as a beneficiary? Domestic partners, friends, and non-lineal relatives such as nieces, nephews, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins are all subject to the inheritance tax on the assets they inherit. Assets bequest to corporations or social/fraternal organizations don’t fit the qualifications as “educational, religious, or charitable” and are therefore not exempt.

Iowa’s max inheritance tax rate is 15%. (Which is better than our neighboring state of Nebraska, which has the highest top inheritance tax rate of 18%.)

In case you were wondering, there is no federal inheritance tax to worry about.

How do I Know if my Estate or Beneficiaries will owe Taxes?

pyramid on a US bill

Consult with an experienced estate planner and other professional advisors so that may they thoroughly evaluate if your estate will be subject to estate or inheritance taxes. Regardless, it’s a good idea to start looking into strategies and estate planning tools to reduce the burden of (all) taxes on your beneficiaries.

One way to do that during your lifetime is to gift (cash or non-cash) assets during your lifetime. The gift tax rate is currently at $15,000. Meaning the IRS will allow you to give away up to that amount, per donee (person receiving the gift), every year, without facing a gift tax.

I also highly recommend consulting an estate planner and other related trusted professional advisors to review your estate planning goals, financial situation, and assets. There are all sorts of unique considerations people face in that demand a thorough review and thoughtful solutions.

Have any questions or owe inheritance taxes yourself? Don’t hesitate to contact me at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com or by phone at 515-371-6077.

 

Rows of 100 dollar bills

There’s that pragmatic, and slightly depressing saying that the only sure things in life are death and taxes. But what about taxes on death? Just like you can’t escape taxes in life, they government can tax your estate at death. Indeed, it’s often referred to as the “death tax.”  And, just like taxpayers file both federal and state income taxes, there are both federal and state estate taxes.

People having a meeting at a desk with papers

What is an Estate Tax?

When a U.S. resident dies, an estate tax may be levied against the gross estate, which includes the fair market value (FMV) of all owned property, as well as any assets the deceased had interest in (e.g. assets like life insurance). Think of it like the gross income figure you calculate for income tax returns.

Federal Estate Tax

Let’s start with federal estate taxes. Because this is a federal tax, this applies regardless of what state you die in.

Not too long ago, I reviewed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act’s (TCJA) impact on estate planning. (Why? Because smart estate planning accounts for taxes and employs strategies that minimize said taxes.) One of the most significant changes from the “new tax law” was with the estate tax exemption. This is the figure subtracted from an estate’s gross value in order to calculate federal taxes.

For tax years 2018 through 2025, the exemption from estate, gift, and generation-skipping taxes was raised from $5.49 million per individual to an approximated $11.2 million. (Why do I say approximated? Because the exemption base is indexed, so the base for the 2017 tax year was $5 million; for the 2018 tax year, the base is now $10 million and indexed for inflation.) In plain terms, this means each individual should be able to pass over $11 million to their heirs before any estate, gift, and generation-skipping taxes apply.

If you’re married, this means your estate exemption now equals $22.4 million. (Or, you could think of it like each couple now has an additional $11.2 million in assets available to gift or make a testamentary transfer with thoughtful estate planning.)

The bottom line: if your estate is worth less than the federal exemption rates, it will be free from the estate taxes after you die. If you have an estate valued at more than the exemption threshold (and smart estate planning strategies are not appropriately implemented to shield assets from being counted in your estate’s gross value), your taxable estate will met with a tax rate of up to 40 percent.

State Estate Taxes

The caveat (and good news for residents of the majority of states) is that not all states have a state estate tax…including Iowa! Currently, 12 states and D.C. also impose an estate tax on residents. It’s important to note that the exemption rates for these state estate taxes are much lower than the federal exemption rate. For instance, our neighbors to the east in Illinois have an exemption rate of $4 million and a graduated marginal tax rate of of o.8 to 16 percent.

Here’s an incredibly helpful map from Tax Foundation that illustrates this.

estate tax map

Note: figures may have changed since time of publication of this map.

Is there any reason an Iowan would need to account for state estate taxes in their estate planning? Only if they own real estate in another state. Let’s consider a hypothetical example to explain this better.

Alice with her Minnesota Lake House

Alice is an Iowa resident. She died in March 2018 owning a vacation home on her favorite lake in Minnesota. Alice’s gross estate totals $2.8 million. What estate taxes will Alice’s estate be responsible for?

Iowa’s Inheritance Tax

While Iowans largely escape the state estate tax, there is a state inheritance tax. The inheritance tax is different than the estate tax (although they they are often incorrectly used interchangeably). The estate tax is based purely on gross value and regardless of who inherits what; the inheritance tax is only charged against the share of inheritance of certain estate beneficiaries.

There’s a lot to note about Iowa’s inheritance tax, so I’ll do a deep dive into that here on the GoFisch blog later this week!

Questions about how taxes (and other fees) may affect your estate plan? Need to revise your current plan after changes to the tax code? Don’t hesitate to contact me via email at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com or by phone (515-371-6077).