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slayer rule

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

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

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

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

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

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

Main Principles of the Slayer Rule

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

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

What Kind of Killing Triggers the Slayer Rule?

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

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

Does There Have to be a Trial and a Conviction?

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

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

 Smart Estate Planning 

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

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

real estate keys to house

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

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

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

Equitable and Legal Title

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

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

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

What About the Seller’s Heirs?

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

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

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

Enlist an Estate Planning Attorney to Help Everything Run Smoothly

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

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

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

man writing on trust paper

If you’re unsure of what a trust is and how it works, you probably don’t have one. And, if you don’t have a trust, you’re not alone. About 57 percent of U.S. adults don’t have an estate planning document like a will or a trust even though they believe having one is important.

What Is a Trust? How Does It Work?

If you haven’t stopped to consider how a trust might help ensure that your wishes are followed and your assets are handled, you could be making a critical estate planning mistake.

A trust is simply a legal agreement among three parties—settlortrustee, and beneficiary—that provides instructions on how and when to pass assets to the trust’s beneficiaries. Let’s look at the role of each of these three parties, and then delve into how trusts work.

Settlor

A settlor—sometimes called the “donor, “grantor,” or “trustor”—is the person who creates the trust and has the legal authority to transfer assets into it.  

Trustee

The trustee is the person who agrees to accept, manage, and protect the assets delivered by the settlor. The trustee has a fiduciary duty to administer the assets according to the trust’s instructions and distribute the trust income and principal according to the rules outlined in the trust document and in the best interests of the beneficiary.

A trustee can be one, two, or more people. A trustee can also be what is known as a “corporate trustee,” such as a financial institution (like a bank) or a law firm that performs trustee duties and charge fees for their services. There are no formal requirements for being a trustee and nonprofessionals frequently serve as a trustee for family members and friends.

Beneficiary

The beneficiary is the person or entity benefiting from the trust. The beneficiary can be one person or entity or multiple parties. Also, trust beneficiaries don’t even have to exist at the time the trust is created (such as in the case of a future grandchild or charitable foundation that has not yet been established).

Trust Property

A trust can be either funded or unfunded. “Funded” mean that the settlor’s assets—sometimes called the “principal” or the “corpus”—have been placed into the trust. A trust is unfunded until the assets are in it (failing to fund a trust is a common estate planning mistake). 

Trust Assets

Trusts can hold just about any kind of asset: real estate, intangible property (like patents), business interests, and personal property. Common trust properties include farms, buildings, vacation homes, stocks, bonds, savings and checking accounts, collections, personal possessions, and vehicles.

“Imaginary Container”

Think of a trust as an “imaginary container” that holds and protects your assets. After the trust is funded, the trust property will still be in the same place before the trust was created—your land where it always was, your artwork on the wall, your money in the bank, your comic book collection in the den. The only difference is the asset will have a different owner: “The Jane Jones Trust,” rather than Jane Jones.

Transfer of Ownership

Putting property in a trust transfers it from personal ownership to the trustee, who holds the property for the beneficiary. The trustee has what is called “legal title” to the trust property and, in most instances, the law treats trust property as if it were now owned by the trustee. Each trust has its own taxpayer identification number, just like an individual.

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

Assets to Beneficiary

The settlor provides terms in a trust agreement directing how the fund’s assets are to be distributed to a beneficiary. The settlor can provide for the distribution of funds in any way that is not against the law or against public policy. The near-limitless flexibility of trusts is a primary advantage for setting one up.

Types of trusts

A joke among estate planners says that the only limit to trusts is the imagination of the lawyers involved.  It’s true, though, that the number and kind of trusts are virtually unlimited.

Let’s start by taking a look at the four primary categories of trusts:

Inter vivos and Testamentary Trusts

Trusts that are set up during the settlor’s lifetime are called “inter vivos” trusts. Those that arise upon the death of the settlor, generally by operation of a will, are called “testamentary” trusts. There are advantages and disadvantages to both types of trusts, and how one decides depends upon the goals and purposes of the settlor.

Revocable and Irrevocable Trusts

Inter vivos and testamentary trusts can be broken down into two more categories: revocable trusts and irrevocable trusts. A revocable trust can be changed at any time during the settlor’s lifetime. Second thoughts about a provision in the trust or about who should be a beneficiary might prompt modification of the trust’s terms. The settlor can alter parts of the trust or revoke the entire thing.

Irrevocable Trust

An irrevocable trust is a type of trust that can’t be changed by the settlor after the agreement has been signed and the trust has been formed and funded. The terms of an irrevocable trust can’t be modified, amended, or terminated without the permission of the settlor’s beneficiary or beneficiaries.

A revocable living trust becomes irrevocable when the settlor dies because he or she is no longer available to make changes to it. But a revocable trust can be designed to break into separate irrevocable trusts at the time of the grantor’s death for the benefit of children or other beneficiaries.

You might wonder, “Why make a trust irrevocable? Wouldn’t you want to maintain the ability to change your mind about the trust or its terms?”

Not necessarily.

Irrevocable trusts, such as irrevocable life insurance trusts, are commonly used to remove assets from a person’s estate and thus avoid them being taxed. Transferring assets into an irrevocable trust gives those assets to the trustee and the trust beneficiaries forever. If a person no longer owns the assets, they don’t comprise or contribute to the value of his or her estate and so they aren’t subject to estate taxes upon death.

Revocable living trusts

There is no “one size fits all” trust—different kinds of trusts offer different benefits (and drawbacks) depending on a person’s circumstances. Age, number of children, health, and relative wealth are just a few of the factors to be considered. The most common trust my clients use is a revocable living trust, sometimes referred to by its abbreviation, “RLT.”

A revocable living trust—created while you’re alive and that can be revoked or amended by you—has three advantages over other kinds of trusts:

 1. Money-Saving

Establishing a revocable living trust helps avoid costly probate—the legal process required to determine that a will is valid. Probate generally eats up about two percent (2%) of an estate, which can add up to a chunk of change you’d probably rather see go to your beneficiaries.

Avoiding probate also means avoiding other fees, such as court costs, that go along with it.

2. Time-Saving

A revocable living trust not only eliminates the costs of probate, but the time-consuming process of probate as well. Here in Iowa, probate can take several months to a year, or sometimes even longer, leaving beneficiaries without their inheritances until the very end of the probate process. The transfer of assets in a trust is much faster.

3. Flexibility

Don’t want your 16-year-old niece to inherit a half-million dollars in one big lump sum? I agree it’s probably not a good idea.

A revocable living trust offers flexibility for the payout of an inheritance because you set the ground rules for when and how distributions are made. For example, you might decide your beneficiaries can receive certain distributions at specific ages (21, 25, 30, etc.), or for reaching certain milestones, such as marriage, the birth of a child, or graduation from college.

last will and testament

Drawbacks

Despite the significant advantages of establishing a revocable living trust, there are drawbacks people should be aware of

For starters, trusts are more expensive to prepare than basic estate plan documents such as wills. However, the costs associated with sitting down with a lawyer and carefully putting in place a trust is, in my opinion, greatly outweighed by the money your estate will save in the end.

Creating a trust can also be an administrative bother at the start of the process because assets (farm, business, stock funds, etc.) must be retitled in the name of the trust. But, all things considered, this is a small inconvenience that is greatly outweighed by the smooth operation of a trust when you pass away.

You Can Trust me to Talk About the Best Trust(s) for You

Interested in learning more about trusts or questioning if you need one? Feel free to reach out at any time by email, gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com, or on my cell, 515-371-6077. If you want to simply get started on an estate plan (everyone needs at least the basic documents in place!) check out my estate plan questionnaire, provided to you free, without any obligation.

planned gift pink bow

A planned gift is literally what is sounds like. Sort of. The term refers to the process of creating a charitable bequest now that will take effect later. In other words, during your lifetime you plan for a gift that will be given a future date—usually at or upon your death. A planned gift is best accomplished as part of an overall estate plan and it is usually delivered through a will or trust.

While you can make provisions to give a specific dollar amount, there are many different types of planned gifts. You can make a planned gift of real estate, life insurance, and retirement plans, or tangible property (such as artwork). You can also remember organizations with planned gifts of charitable remainder annuity trusts (CRATs), charitable remainder unitrusts (CRUTs), Net Income with Makeup Charitable Remainder Unitrusts (NIMCRUTs), FlipCRUTs.

For now, let’s go over exactly what planned giving is; the benefits of planned giving; the kinds of charities you need to consider when making a planned gift; and the kinds of gifts that qualify for a tax deduction.

Who gives? Donors and benefactors

In July 2018, Warren Buffet donated about $3.4 billion to five charities, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—itself headed by the country’s most generous philanthropic couple who gave it $4.8 billion. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, donated $1 billion to their charitable foundation.

It’s fun to read about the super-rich and their bountiful bequests, but you don’t have to be a modern-day Rockefeller or a member of the one percent to donate to charity or create a planned gift. Indeed, ordinary people with ordinary means can bequeath gifts that make an extraordinary difference.

In 2016, a legal secretary in Brooklyn, New York, who had worked at the same law firm for 67 years, bequeathed $8.2 million to, among others, New York City’s Henry Street Settlement and Hunter College to help disadvantaged students. Sylvia Bloom, who worked until she was 96 years old, saved her fortune through frugal living and savvy investing.

People make planned gifts for any number of reasons:

  • Streamline estate planning and closing;
  • Make a meaningful contribution to a cause or organization that reflects their beliefs and values;
  • Create a legacy that will have lasting impact into the future;
  • Gain income and tax benefits.

There are three types of planned gifts:

  • Outright gifts that use assets instead of cash;
  • Gifts that return income or other financial benefits to you in return for a contribution;
  • Gifts payable upon your death.

Who receives? Planned giving beneficiaries

Organizations love planned gifts. After what are known as “major gifts”—the six-figure endowment, the priceless Old Master painting, the stretch of valuable coastline—planned giving makes up the largest chunk of donations a nonprofit receives. Planned giving helps nonprofits weather fluctuations in other kinds of charitable giving and income, such as yearly donations and gift shop sales. It can alleviate the possibility of dipping into an endowment or cutting back on services and programs. Planned giving is also a way to develop and sustain relationships with donors — and in an increasingly competitive giving environment, nonprofits can’t afford to ignore planned giving programs. Even though organizations don’t immediately receive a planned gift, it is worth the wait.

The reality is that nonprofits can no longer simply ask donors to pony up with cash by writing a check. Donors expect and often demand an array of choices when it comes to helping their favorite nonprofits. Many if not most nonprofits have programs in place to accept planned gifts. But if you’re interested in donating an asset your favorite nonprofit isn’t accustomed to accepting, your best bet is to connect it with an experienced nonprofit attorney to make your gift a reality.

Not all nonprofits are the same when it comes to giving

When we talk about “charitable giving,” it is usually when referring to a particular kind of nonprofit organization. Specifically, organizations formed under 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Service tax code.(Click to the IRS website to check if a possible beneficiary is a qualified 501(c)(3).) A 501(c)(3) can come in many different forms: foundations, charities, churches, community organizations, schools. They all have one thing in common in that they are formed to benefit the general public, not individuals, not for the mutual benefit of their members (such as homeowners associations, and not for political coalitions).

Be aware, however, that not every nonprofit is a 501(c)(3) organization. There are actually 29 types of nonprofits in the U.S. federal tax code, but when it comes to planned giving you can only take a tax deduction if you donate to one that the IRS has conferred 501(c)(3) status. Contributions to non-501(c)(3) groups, charities, and organizations can be valuable to recipients and make you feel good as well. It’s just that the federal government is not going to give you a tax break for your donation. Knowing what you can and can’t claim helps you maximize the potential tax savings that the charitable tax deduction to a 501(c)(3) offers.

Before we discuss what kinds of giving qualify for a tax deduction, here are some that don’t qualify:

Promises and pledges

Let’s say you made a charitable pledge of $150 to a 501(c)(3), but only gave $50 that particular tax year. You can only deduct from your taxes the $50 that you actually donated that year. Once you donate rest of the pledge (the remaining $100) you can deduct that amount for the tax year in which this occurred.

Political support

While it is important to be involved in the democratic process, monetary support is not considered charitable giving. Monies given to political candidates, campaigns, parties, and political action committees (PACs), as well as money spent to host or attend fundraising events, or to purchase advertising, lawn signs, and bumper stickers are not considered charitable giving.

Fundraising and special event tickets

I’m sure you can’t count the number of times you’ve bought raffle or lottery tickets, bingo cards, and partook other kinds of games of chance. These classic and popular fundraising methods support charities and are fun to imagine winning, but you can’t claim a deduction for them.

Personal benefit gifts

The IRS considers a charitable contribution to be one-sided. This means if you receive something in return for your 501(c)(3) donation — from a tote bag to a T-shirt, from a side of beef to a three-course meal — only the amount above the fair market value of the item/service is deductible. Let’s say your neighbor’s child is selling popcorn to raise money for a scouting troop. You buy a bag of popcorn for $10 whose retail value is $6. This amounts to a $4 charitable donation. Similarly, you purchase a $75 ticket to a fundraising dinner sponsored a favorite charity. The dinner would cost you $30 at a restaurant, so your charitable deduction would be $45.

Gifts without proof

Cash placed in your church’s collection plate, dropped into the Salvation Army’s Red Kettle, and handed to a student for a cupcake at a bake sale…these are all worthy donations, but you can’t just guesstimate how much you’ve given and deduct the amount from your taxes. Of course, I believe, you gave, but the IRS demands documentary proof of all cash donations, no matter the amount in order for you to claim the deduction. Proof might be bank records such as a canceled check, a receipt from the nonprofit organization, or a pay stub if the donation was made through a payroll deduction. For single cash donations of more than $250, the IRS requires a statement from the organization.

Gifts to individuals

I’ve seen many successful crowdfunding campaigns to support any number of good causes. Let’s say a friend is raising money for her child’s expensive medical procedure through an online site and you make a donation to help her reach her goal. Or, perhaps your nephew is raising money for a mission trip over the summer and you write him a check for $25. Unfortunately, contributions earmarked for certain individuals (despite their economic, medical, educational or other needs) are not deductible according to the IRS. However, if you donate to a qualified organization that in turn helps your friend or nephew, that contribution would be deductible — although you can’t designate your donation to be directed to that person. Again, a contribution can’t be given directly or indirectly to a specific individual and still be tax-deductible.

Bountiful opportunities for charitable giving

It may seem like there are a lot of kinds of giving and plenty of nonprofits that do not qualify for the tax benefits you’re looking for, but don’t worry!  There is a multitude of ways for you to show your generosity and contribute to a charity that can minimize your estate taxes, bypass capital gains taxes, and receive current tax deductions. Of course, planned giving is not the only kind of giving. Unplanned giving is no less a means of showing your generosity and supporting those organizations whose mission and activities you believe in.

I’d love to discuss your charitable giving goals and options tailored to your individual situation. Don’t hesitate to contact me via email or by phone (515-371-60770).

coffee-book-table-word-nerd

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

Trust

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

Grantor

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

Trustee

The trustee is the person who receives the property and accepts the obligation to hold the property for the benefit of the beneficiary. The trustee is responsible for managing the property according to the rules outlined in the trust document and must do so in the best interests of the beneficiary. A trustee can be one, two, or many persons.

Corporate Trustee

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

Beneficiary

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

Concurrent Interests or Successive Interests

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

Principal, or Corpus, or Res

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

Inter Vivos Trusts and Testamentary Trusts

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

Probate

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

Language lesson done for the day!

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

Among many other benefits, trusts have the advantages of:

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

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

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

GoFisch blog

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

Life Insurance as Key Estate Planning Tool

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

Three Estate Planning Issues Life Insurance May Create

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

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

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

In Trusts we Trust

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

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

So, what IS an Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust?

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

Wait, what was that about the three parties?

The grantor is you, the purchaser of life insurance.

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

Who can be a beneficiary of an ILIT?

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

Your beneficiary and your life insurance proceeds

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

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

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

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

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

Options for “ending” an ILIT

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

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

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


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

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

Someone pointing into the sunset

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

Dad holding daughter

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

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

Specifics of Special Needs Trust

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

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

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

Careful Drafting Required

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

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

Person writing on paper

A last will and testament certainly sounds like a complex document. But, when boiled down, your will answers just three simple, yet important questions.

  1. Who do you want to inherit your assets?

A will provides for the orderly distribution of your property at death according to your wishes. By property, I mean everything you own. Your property includes both tangible and intangible things. An example of a tangible item would be your stamp collection. An example of intangible items would be stocks and bonds.

mom and daughter holding hands

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

In a will, you also name the “executor” of your estate. The executor is the person who’s responsible for making sure the will is implemented as written. Needless to say, this is a very important position, and you want to name someone you can trust completely, and you know to be responsible and competent.

  1. Who do you want to take care of your kids?

If you have minor children (i.e., kids under age 18), you’ll want to designate a legal guardian(s) who will take care of your children until they are adults. Also, a will can set up a financial trustee (may be the same as the guardian) who can oversee and be responsible for your child’s funds until they are old enough (and mature enough) to inherit property.

 

Without a Will, There’s No Way

Without a last will and testament, you’ve given no guidance to anyone about who should inherit your property, who should be in charge of carrying out your wishes, and who you want to be your kids’ legal guardian. Not having a will creates unneeded stress and heartache, and even total chaos, for your loved ones and friends. This distress would also come at the worst possible time—when they are mourning your passing.

Drafting a quality estate plan that incorporates your wishes and goals is the height of responsibility. And if estate planning sounds intimidating, fear not! We’ll walk through the five steps of estate planning together. The best place to start is with my Estate Plan Questionnaire.

I’d love to hear from you. You can email me anytime at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com.

george washington figurine

Happy Presidents Day! Even if you don’t have today off of work on this federal holiday, it’s a good day to think about the first and pretty incredible leader of the United States, George Washington. First recognized by Congress in 1885, the holiday was first celebrated on Washington’s birthday, February 22. Eventually, the day shifted to the third Monday in February after the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. Instead of celebrating by chopping down a cherry tree (just kidding, that’s a myth), consider the ways Washington’s own estate planning can inspire you to get your affairs in order.

“Human happiness and moral duty are inseparably connected.”

Washington Wrote His Own Will

This is probably a terrible point to start on, as I cannot encourage you to write your own estate plan. There are so many ways that this can go wrong from lacking requisite formalities, mistaking property laws, and risking the document being found entirely invalid. All of these errors can result in a situation that causes your loved ones heartache, confusion and can maybe even lead to litigation. But, history is what it is. Washington wrote his own will and dated it July 9, 1799, not long before his death on December 14 that same year. However, considering Washington was one of the wealthiest presidents of all time, if he were living today, he would definitely want to enlist a team of professional advisors to make sure all of his assets were accounted for and passed on in a tax-strategic way.

Washington Made Two Wills

Washington was a smart man, clearly. He had, not just one, but two last will and testament documents! Of course, you don’t need and shouldn’t have two estate plans, but you should update your estate plan regularly when changes may affect your estate plan’s effectiveness or determine who you include as a beneficiary, executor, or guardian.

Washington was apparently on his deathbed when he asked his wife, Martha, to bring him both editions of his will. He had her burn one so the “real” one was competing against the other version. Again, it’s the principle that sometimes you need to make important changes to your plan that’s important here!

Washington Included His Charitable Goals

Washington left the entirety of his estate to his wife. However, he also wanted to benefit the causes he cared most about. Washington was concerned about American youth being sent to Europe for formal educations and wanted to benefit higher education institutions in the growing United States. He left 100 shares he held in a company called James River Co. to help, what ultimately became, Washington and Lee University. He also left 50 shares in a different company to endow a D.C. university (which never came to fruition).

Like Washington, you too can give to the charitable organizations and causes you care about by naming them in your estate plan as beneficiaries of certain amounts of money or of a certain percentage of your estate.

Washington Chose His Executors Wisely

Most folks I work with only choose one or two main executors of their estate plan, and then also name an alternate or two if the first choice doesn’t work out. Washington named a full seven executors to oversee that his wishes and dispersion of property was carried out. His executors included his grandson, five nephews, and his wife.

In Washington We Trust

Probate can take a long time, especially if you pass away intestate (without an estate plan). But Washington’s estate, unfortunately, took an excruciatingly long time to be completely settled. For reasons unknown, appraisal of the estate wasn’t filed with the court until 1810! And then, the estate was not fully closed until 1847. Yikes. If you would the majority or all of your estate to avoid probate, you may want to consider a trust of some sort.

Power to the People…To Make Thier Wishes Known

As Washington said, “It is better to offer no excuse than a bad one.” Drop the estate planning excuses! You don’t need presidential power to make a quality estate plan that meets your goals. One of the easiest ways to get started with my free, no-obligation Estate Plan Questionnaire.

cute puppy

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

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

cat with flowers

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

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

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

gordon fischer law firm animal care trust

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