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).

red chairs in conference room

Undoubtedly knowledge is power when it comes to understanding how different laws directly affect you. Indeed, living in a modern society mean that an interplay of laws govern pretty much every aspect of our lives in one way or another—even when it comes to death. That’s why I’m dedicated to breaking down terms (like in my “legal word of the day” series) and explaining processes (like how to form a 501(c)(3) in Iowa) related to GFLF’s core services. Because even if you’re not an attorney, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t/can’t learn about the interplay of different laws  Similarly, I think it’s important to get the word out about events in the community that can help grow knowledge on important topics like estate planning.

The Iowa State Bar Association (ISBA) announced they’re producing a seminar series called the “People’s Law School.” The first public information event will focus on three super important estate planning elements:

While the seminar is being billed as one for “older Iowan issues,” I have to remind that everyone needs an estate plan! Even young professionals and definitely married couples. Definitely people with kids and people with pets! Even college students can benefit from putting a power of attorney in place. And, especially working and middle-class folks need a up-to-date estate plan.

At the seminar, attendees can have a living will or medical power of attorney form notarized at the event if they bring their completed documents.

The session will be held 5:30-7 p.m. on September 19 at the ISBA Headquarters in Des Moines. Interested? You can register online here.

According to their website, the ISBA will “identify other topics of public interest and host similar seminars in the future,” so be on the look out for other upcoming opportunities to learn more about the law as a part of your life.

If you’ve dropped all the excuses and committed to making your estate plan happen, that’s great! It’s easy to get started with my free Estate Plan Questionnaire. Questions or want to discuss your estate? Don’t hesitate to contact me via email or by phone at 515-371-6077.

Better Call Saul's Bob Odenkirk

Yesterday was the season four premiere of AMC’s Better Call Saul, the highly acclaimed “dramedy” which features slippery lawyer Jimmy McGill.

If you have yet to watch this great series, don’t worry no spoilers are needed; the lessons we can learn from the series still make sense even if you know a few basics.

Better Call Saul is a prequel series to Breaking Bad, and if you’ve seen that, you know the character Jimmy (played masterfully by Bob Odenkirk) eventually transforms himself into the very ethically challenged Saul Goodman. In either show, Jimmy/Saul is not someone you want to emulate.

The characters both finds and creates conflict in his life from his warring moral compass against his ambition. What do Jimmy’s complicated character flaws have to do with your estate planning? In the show Jimmy focuses in on elder law, including counseling senior citizens on how to make and reach their estate planning goals. While that’s great, he also makes ample, costly mistakes along the way with his important cases and clients. If there is anywhere in life to avoid preventable, silly mistakes it’s in estate planning. Here are five of the worst mistakes you should avoid like a Jimmy McGill scam with your estate plan.

Thinking you only need a will

As I’ve stated before, but bears repeating, you need more than a will. You need an estate plan. An estate plan consists of several legal documents to prepare for your death or incapacitation and a will is just one of these several documents, although an important one. I’ve written at length about the six “must have” estate planning documents. Don’t get just a will, it’s not enough. Get an estate plan.

Settling for a DIY estate plan

Why would you not hire an Iowa lawyer—particularly one well versed in wills, trusts and estates—and go it alone? Yet, folks write their own “estate plans” all the time. There are at least nine excellent reasons, among many others, to hire an attorney to draft your estate plan.

The question is not, whether you can you write your own “estate plan.” Given the Internet and YouTube, with some training and practice you could no doubt perform oral surgery on yourself. The question is whether that decision is a wise one and will it turn out well? The plain truth is you need a lawyer to help you with your estate plan.

Failing to keep your estate plan updated

The only constant in life is change, and as your life changes your estate plan must adapt. Common events that should cause you to re visit your estate plan include:

  • The 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 becomes disabled

There are many other life events that ought to cause you to update your estate plan. Be sure to keep your estate plan current.

Not getting an estate plan at all

Surveys show that about 50% of Americans don’t have even a basic will. Oy. When you consider the bad, even terrible consequences of not having an estate plan, if you don’t have one, get on it stat. A great start would be to download my Estate Plan Questionnaire. My EPQ is free and easy, and truly a terrific first step.

Failure to think about including your favorite charity in your will.

Your estate plan is a great way to fund the causes you care about most. Whether it be a church, hospital, school, social welfare agency, whatever nonprofit you feel strongly toward, why not make a gift to them in your estate plan? You may well make a real difference, perhaps even one large enough to transform your fave charity and affect generations to come.

If you have kids, of course you want to make sure they are well provided for. I certainly understand that. But perhaps your kids are now grown adults, successful in their own careers. Perhaps you are affluent, in which case, maybe you need to ask yourself, How much is enough for the kids? Consider generously giving to that charity (or charities) at your final farewell through charitable bequests as a part of a lasting legacy and impact.

Unlike the Jimmy McGill or Saul Goodman style of attorney, I am honest, ethical, and working with a mission in mind . Be the judge for yourself—I offer a free one-hour consultation and transparent estate planning package rates. Questions or simply want to talk about how great this show is? I can always be reached via email at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com, or by phone at 515-371-6077.

August includes it’s fair share of obscure “holidays” including National Catfish Month, Friendship Week, and Bad Poetry Day. This month is also your chance to celebrate National Make-A-Will Month! (Yes, seriously. This is a thing.) I recommend celebrating this quite literal month by creating an estate plan. A will is one of six key documents in a quality, individualized estate plan. (If you were to elect to make a living revocable trust a part of your plan, then you would still need a will—often referred to as a pour-over will—it would just read a little different!)

national make-a-will month

Depending on your personal/family situation and assets, a will can be a bit more complicated and longer in page length than the other estate plan documents. It’s important you work with a lawyer experienced in estate planning to be sure your will covers the three major questions of:

  1. Who do you want to be the executor of your will? The executor is in charge of carrying out your directions and wishes as expressed in the will. They will also pay any outstanding debts and distribute assets as you express in the document.
  2. Who do you want to be the legal guardians for your minor children until they’re adults (age 18), if something were happen to you?
  3. What do you want done with both your tangible and intangible property? (An example of tangible property is your books or your boat. Intangible property includes assets like stocks.)

Yet another reason to work with a professional estate planner to craft a will is to avoid costly mistakes and to legitimately donate to your favorite charities.

Why Does a Will Matter?

I cannot reinforce enough that everyone NEEDS a will. Leaving your family and friends without a clearly written will in place can result in worst case scenarios such as litigation or confusion in who is to be the proper guardian of your minor child(ren). Real world examples of this are unfortunately all too common and no one is immune. For instance, Prince died without a will leaving family infighting and conflict.

Without a will the Iowa probate court is forced to name an executor and there is the possibility that the appointed executor is not who you would have chosen. It’s simply better not to gamble with who has control over dispersing your hard earned assets.

Regular Revisions

If you already have a will (and other necessary estate planning documents) congrats! You’re better prepared for the inevitable than about half of Americans. Yet, just because you created an estate plan at one point doesn’t mean it automatically adapts to how your life changes.

While estate plans never expire, for your will to be most effective it needs to be reviewed at least annually and updated as needed. Common scenarios for estate plan revisions can be a death in the family, change in marriage status, birth of a child, major changes in financial situation, and moving out of state.

Your estate plan should also be updated if your goals change over time. For example, you may want to alter the amounts of inheritance or increase/decrease charitable bequests.

Where There’s a Will There’s a Way

I would love to help you solidify your family’s future, help you achieve peace of mind, and celebrate Make-A-Will Month in the best way you can! The best place to start is by filling out my Estate Plan Questionnaire. It’s easy, free, and there’s no obligation. It’s simply a document that gets you thinking and planning. You can also contact me at any time via email (Gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com) or phone 515-371-6077.

magnifying glass over book

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

bookcase with ladder

Two Broad Classifications

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

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

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

Intangible and Tangible Property

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

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

Pop Quiz!

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

Your Twitter account.

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

Your IRA.

Again, this is intangible property.

Farmland, including its silos and fences.

Real property.

Your comic book collection.

Tangible property!

MacBook Air laptop computer.

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

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

What Happens to Your Property When You Die?

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

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

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

cash and checkbook

When estate planning you’re answering many of the unknowns for the future by deciding to whom you want your stuff—your cash assets, real estate, personal property, physical body, to name just a few—to pass to and when. You also have to consider some tough topics about your own mortality and imagine a future for your loved ones that doesn’t involve you in it. Estate planning also has a little bit of a learning curve—figuring out what strategies and documents you may need to help you meet your tax, financial, charitable giving, and estate goals and why. (Just one of the many reasons a qualified estate planner is a must.)

The one thing that shouldn’t be a mystery or an unknown cost is the cost of an estate plan. If you’re going to invest in a quality set of legal documents that never expire, tailored to your personal situation and intentions, you should know what you’re getting yourself into. Rate Sheet Checklist

That’s why Gordon Fischer Law Firm is always transparent with estate planning package rates. You can find them at the end of my Estate Plan Questionnaire (the first of many important documents a part of your plan) and you can also find them on this (super shareable!) estate plan package rate sheet.

Don’t have an estate plan? Don’t let any questions about costs hold you back. Get in touch with Gordon at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com or by phone at (515) 371-6077.

 

two hands with wedding rings

Asking if your current spouse of many years can disinherit you is a question I hope you never have to ask. But, it’s an interesting query to say the least, and the answer may astound and amaze you.

It’s super uncomfortable, even for an estate planner like me, to think about my wife leaving me out of her estate plan, let alone her passing away. So, I’m going to use a hypothetical example.

Mr and Mrs sign

Scenario: John, Mary, and the Lover

Let’s say John and Mary are legally married. One sad day, Mary has a massive heart attack and dies. John is shocked to discover that Mary had a valid will he knew nothing about. Far worse, Mary specifically disowned John, said John should get absolutely nothing, and instead Mary left her entire estate to her paramour (aka lover); someone John knew nothing about!

Wow, ice cold, Mary, ice cold.

What result? I’ll give you four options, pick which you think is most correct.

  1. The “manstress” gets everything, John gets nothing.
  2. John gets everything; the lover gets nothing.
  3. The lover gets everything, but only after a lengthy, awkward, and hard-fought court battle.
  4. The lover gets some of the estate, but so does John.

Have you picked?

Answer “D” is most correct, at least under Iowa law.

You see, under Iowa law, a spouse cannot completely disinherit another spouse (assuming they have a valid marriage and they are married at the time of the first spouse’s death).

Elective Share Law

Iowa has an “elective share” law. (You can read the specific Iowa Code Section here if you’re curious. The citation is Iowa Code § 633.237).

In Iowa, a surviving spouse chooses between inheritance under a will OR elective share in the deceased spouse’s estate. Until the surviving spouse files an affidavit for claiming elective share, it will be presumed that the surviving spouse will take the inheritance under the will.

In Iowa, the elective share of the surviving spouse comprises of all of the exempt personal property and 1/3 of the value of all real estate, after the debts have been paid off and 1/3 of whatever is remaining of personal property. The surviving spouse may occupy the homestead in lieu of taking the 1/3 share of real estate of the deceased spouse.

So, Can My Spouse, Disinherit Me?

Bottom line, my wonderful wife, Monica, cannot disinherit me so long as we are legally married. Even if she (or her lawyer) writes a will that states I should get not one single penny from her estate no matter what, I would still have the option of choosing an elective share. Obviously, in this case, just like in John and Mary’s situation, the decision will be an exceedingly easy one. The will give me zero, zilch, nada, nothing—of course I am going with the elective share option.

Gordon and Monica wedding day

This is Monica & I on our wedding day!

But you know what? The elective share is a narrow exception that proves the general rule. By that, I mean the following: one of the great reasons to do proper estate planning, is that you can give what you want, to whom you want, how you want, when you want. (And if you do NOT do proper estate planning, well, then, you leave it up to the Iowa Legislature and Iowa Courts to dispose of your property).

Again, it bears repeating: estate planning allows to give what you want, to whom you want, how you want, when you want. On top of accounting for your loved one in you estate plan, you also have the wonderful opportunity to help the cause or causes that you are most passionate about through charitable bequests in your will.

Want more on this subject? Check out this Facebook live video of me explaining this “in person.”

Have more questions about you will and estate planning? Maybe how you and your spouse can achieve your collective and individual goals? How about avoiding conflicts of interest? I offer everyone a free one-hour consultation. You can reach me anytime through email at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com or call my cell at 515-371-6077. I’d truly love to hear from you!

book club june

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

Bettencourt Affair book cover

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

GoFisch Book Club Flyer

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

coffee-book-table-word-nerd

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

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

red poppies memorial day

On Memorial Day (and every day), we at Gordon Fischer Law Firm want to give a deep expression of gratitude for the fallen heroes and military veterans who have served America. Indeed, we can enjoy the land of free only because of these brave individuals.

Memorial Day quote with red poppies

While Memorial Day is the unofficial start to the summer season, ushering in the much awaited season with a long weekend of sunshine and BBQs. A Monday off of work is always a cause for celebration, but throughout all this we must not forget the true meaning of this important day—to praise, to thank, and to remember.

GFLF has worked with many veterans on estate planning and in nonprofit formation/compliance, and it’s always an honor. There are not enough “thank you’s” in the world to express our gratitude for what the veterans (and their families) have done for our country. We would also like to extend this sentiment to first responders who have served on the front lines of protecting the public including police, firefighters, and EMS personnel. A special and sincere thanks to those who have sacrificed in the line of danger and their families.

As modern day heroes, our veterans and first responders’ stories are important. Their legacy is important. To preserve that tradition of strength and service, you need an estate plan to ensure your property and assets are distributed to your loved ones, and favorite charities in accordance with your wishes.

So, in an attempt to express our gratitude we would like to offer 25% off the cost of an estate plan package to all Iowan active duty or retired service members and first responders. The rate also extends to spouses. The discount will be available through 6/30/2018. Contact me via email or by phone (515-371-6077) to lock in the rate and discuss your estate plan needs.

us flag marching band

What Does an Estate Plan Include?

There are six documents that should be part of most everyone’s estate plan.

  1. Estate planning questionnaire
  2. Will
  3. Power of attorney for health care
  4. Power of attorney for finances
  5. Disposition of personal property
  6. Disposition of final remains

You should keep these documents updated and current. (Here are a few common “big” events that may necessitate estate plan revisions.) Also, don’t forget about assets with your beneficiary designations. For most Iowans, that’s good enough—six documents, keeping them current, and also remembering about those assets with beneficiary designations.

Special Estate Planning Consideration for Veterans

It’s super important that military veterans work with an attorney that specializes in estate planning as veterans have some unique assets and situations to consider. This can make the estate plan more complex and there can be unintended serious legal consequences if your plan is not drafted properly. A few examples of inputs to consider for a veterans involve:

  • Retirement benefit pay (considered guaranteed income)
  • Survivor Benefit Plan (if so elected)
  • Pension benefits
  • Life insurance
  • Dependent Indemnity Coverage (if applicable)

American flag on window

Cost of an Estate Plan

Because I want every Iowan to have an up-to-date estate plan I’m very transparent with the cost of an estate plan that that takes into full consideration YOUR situation. (This is why you need an experienced estate planner to draft your documents.) With the Memorial Day estate plan discount, that translates into significant savings.

Estate Planning Process

I write about my process at length, but it’s just five steps! Seriously, it’s not that painful. My clients report back to me that they have such relief and peace of mind when it’s completed.

Washington Memorial with man in front

DISCLAIMERS

The “Memorial Day discount” is only applicable for estate plans created by active or retired veterans and first responders (and their spouses). Availability of the discount ends after June 30, 2018 at which point prospective client must have contacted Gordon Fischer Law Firm and indicated an intention to make an estate plan.
Memorial Day discount merely relates to pricing and in no way creates an attorney-client relationship, nor any other kind of professional relationship. The Memorial Day discount does not create a contract or agreement of any kind.
Gordon Fischer Law Firm, P.C. retains full and total discretion as to who it chooses to serve as clients and why. Gordon Fischer Law Firm, P.C. retains the right to refuse service to anyone it so chooses.
The Memorial Day discount may not apply to individuals or families with a net worth of more than $1 million dollars. (High net worth families definitely need an estate plan, very much so, but the applied strategies and tools will be more complicated.)
table with book and tea

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

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

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

All in the Family

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

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

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

English moors

First Wuthering Heights Lesson: Stop the Procrastination

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

What Happened to the Estate

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

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

Second Wuthering Heights Lesson: Intestate Succession

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

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

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

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

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

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Write Your Plan Before “The End”

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

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