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woman reading on phone

The September edition of GoFisch is live! This month’s edition features:

Like what you read? Don’t forget to subscribe to GoFisch and tell your friends. I like to think of it as the least boring law firm newsletter you could hope to read!

We the people close up

We’re headed “back to school” on the blog this month, and I couldn’t pass up today’s fantastic excuse for a short American history lesson!

Fourth of July gets all the attention for red, white, and blue pride, but Constitution Day is a lesser-known, but still important reason to celebrate America’s values of freedom, democracy, and liberty. Constitution Day commemorates the formation and signing of the U.S. Constitution on September 17, 1787. The Constitution was signed in Pennsylvania at the Constitutional Convention by 39 men including Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and George Washington.

Mount Rushmore

There’s a wealth of American history I encourage you to explore to understand in full the lead-up of events that led to the execution of the Constitution. TIME wrote a great piece and the National Archives offers up some great information.

Constitution Day also stands to recognize everyone who has become an American citizen. According to USCIS, more than 260 naturalization ceremonies were held across the nation as part of this year’s Constitution Week. In fact, before 2004, the day was called Citizenship Day.

Statute of Liberty

For me, the Constitution represents one of the most important legal foundations, on which the world’s oldest constitutional republic is built. That said, we must never forget the privilege it grants us and the duty we all have as citizens to protect it through civic engagement and knowledge. What does Constitution Day mean to you?

“The strength of the Constitution lies entirely in the determination of each citizen to defend it. Only if every single citizen feels duty bound to do his share in this defense are the constitutional rights secure.”
― Albert Einstein

While it’s not the U.S. Constitution, your estate plan is similar in the way that it’s a guiding document that guides people in the future as to your goals and intentions for your property, body, charitable giving, and what you want to happen with the people and pets you care for. So, you can think of yourself as a “founding father” of the legacy you want to leave. Ready to put your “John Hancock” on an estate plan? Get started with my free Estate Plan Questionnaire or contact me.

letter of instruction

When I prepare estate plans for my clients, they typically include six key documents. For more complex estates, the plan may also involve trust and/or business succession documents. However, to make estate planning as simple and the least chaotic for your loved ones tasked with fulfilling your wishes, I also recommend drafting another document: a letter of instruction.

What Exactly is a Letter of Instruction?

Think of a letter of instruction like an easy-to-read-and-understand summary shortcut for your estate plan’s executors and representatives. Its main purpose is to help guide the person(s) settling an estate through the process, step-by-step, in plain, clear language.  The letter can serve as a cheat sheet of sorts. It’s not legally required and certainly doesn’t take the place of a valid will, but it’s a meaningful nod to those you have tasked with handling your affairs.

Your letter of intent doesn’t have to go by any specific form or outline, so some people tend to use it as a way of giving personal instructions and giving details beyond what is articulated in your estate planning documents. A useful letter of intent can include the following information:

  • Location(s) of:
    • Important papers such as birth certificates, any divorce/marriage certificates, citizenship papers, etc.
    • Estate plan.
    • Titles and/or deeds to real estate and rental property.
    • Recent copies of all financial statements like tax returns and other potentially important legal documents.
    • Safety deposit boxes and the respective keys.
    • Tangible property that may not be readily accessible
  • Names, passwords, account numbers, and PIN numbers for financial accounts.
  • Social security number.
  • Contact information for:
  • Instructions for the care of any pets. (You may also want to establish an animal care trust.)

Regular Updates & Safe Storage

Like your other estate planning documents, the letter of instruction should be reviewed annually and updated as needed. Because the letter of intent includes confidential personal information it should be stored in a secure place that can also be accessible by your estate plan’s executor.

But First, an Estate Plan!

Before you go about drafting a letter of intent, it’s important to place a priority on executing an estate plan that helps you meet your goals and define your legacy. My free, no-obligation Estate Plan Questionnaire (the first of the six key estate planning documents) is a great place to get started. Otherwise, contact me by phone or email with any questions and to discuss which estate planning strategies may be best for you and your family.

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. Click the image below to see a cost breakdown by packageRate 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.

wealthy dollar bills

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

The Case of Kingston Lear

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

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

A Matter of Trusts

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

Probate Costs and Fees, If You Please

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

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

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

Loss of Privacy

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

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

horses at fence

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

Loss of Future Profits

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

Costs of Cases

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

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

Total Losses Equal?

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

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

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

The Rich Can Afford Bad Estate Planning

crown silver

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

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

You Can’t Afford Poor Quality Estate Planning

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

The rich aren’t like you and me. They can badly botch estate planning. You and I can’t afford to make mistakes with our estates; there’s no room (and not enough money!) for error.

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

cutting into a pie

Pi (π) is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. Pi is a constant number, meaning that for all circles of any size, Pi will be the same. (It’s also a great day to deliver pie to Gordon Fischer Law Firm…any kind will do!)

Like geometry, in estate planning there are many variables, and some constants, too. Ironically, one of the constants in estate planning is change. And as your life and circumstances changes, your estate plan needs to change too.

Change & Your Estate Plan

Let’s assume you’ve gone to an estate planning lawyer, and you have (at the very least) the six “must have” estate planning documents. That’s great, well done. (You can read all about these six documents here.).

But remember you also need to keep these documents updated and current.

Major Life Events

If you undergo a major life event, you may well want to (re)visit with your estate planning lawyer, to see if this life event requires changing your estate plan through different provisions, tools, and strategies.

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

  • The birth or adoption of a child or grandchild
  • Marriage or divorce
  • Illness or disability of a spouse or beneficiary
  • 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
  • Launch or closure of a business

This is just a short list of life events that should cause you to reconsider your estate plan; there are many others.

Changes in goals

It’s not just life changes, though. It may be that your overall goals for your estate plan have changed over time. You may want to change the amounts of inheritances. As your financial situation changes, you may want to increase or decrease, your charitable bequests.

Laws are dynamic and changing

And, it’s not just changes in your own life you need to think about, either. Congress, the Iowa legislature, and the courts are constantly changing the laws. When the rules change, so too must your estate plan.

Meet the Donor Family

To illustrate when estate plans should be updated, let’s look at the Donor Family. Jill and Dave have been married for 25 years and have four grown children. They executed a common-sense estate plan a few years ago.

Since that time, the Donors have gone through many changes, as you would expect, and as all families have. Should Jill and Dave update their estate plan to reflect changes in their family’s circumstance? Consider the following:

Divorce

One of the Donor kids filed for a divorce from his wife. Jim and Carol need to update their estate plan since they decided they now want to exclude the ex-spouse as a beneficiary.

Changes in financial status

Jill’s uncle passed away and left her a great deal of money. The Donors need to determine how this inheritance will affect their current plan and future estate tax liability. The Donors may want to be more generous to their favorite charities. They may want to talk to their estate planning lawyer about charitable giving through a planned gift, such as a charitable gift annuity or charitable remainder trust.

Birth

Our example couple’s youngest child recently announced that she and her spouse are expecting their first child. Jill and Dave must update their estate plan to provide for the new grandchild.

Major changes in health

The Donor’s youngest child was in a serious car accident, which resulted in severe disability. He can no longer work and is receiving government disability benefits. The Donors will want to seriously consider setting up a special needs trust. This type of trust will allow a beneficiary to receive inheritances, without it being considered income by the government for qualification purposes.

New real estate outside Iowa

Jill and Dave recently bought a vacation home in Arizona. The vacation home may well be affected by Arizona laws. In any case, the Donors’ estate plan should reflect this new asset.

vw bus in arizona

As you can see the Donor Family has many reasons to revisit their estate plan, and more than likely, so do you! In between bites of your favorite pie, review your current estate plan to make sure its current. (If you still need an estate plan, the best place to start is with my Estate Plan Questionnaire.) Additionally, I can always be found at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com and 515-371-6077.

Gordon Fischer Estate Planning Simple

You know you need an estate plan, but you still don’t understand really what you need or where to start. What to do? I’m here to help and it’s one of my personal missions to break down estate planning so it’s as easy and accessible as possible.

Here are three blog posts, all relatively short and simple, that should help.

First, I provide the very basics of estate planning which features the six “must have” estate planning documents everyone needs.

For many, the six “must have” estate planning documents is enough. Some Iowans will also want or need a trust.

Second, here are the basics of what you need to know about trusts.

Trusts can be needed and utilized for a number of reasons. Perhaps someone’s assets are too large, too numerous, and/or too complicated and a trust is needed. Perhaps the person simply has a desire to avoid probate. Trusts can also provide a measure of privacy that, say, wills, do not.

Third, you may ask, how does someone go about actually getting these documents? What’s the process of putting together an estate plan? Well, probably every lawyer has a different estate planning process. I naturally prefer mine – I think it’s very client-focused and client-friendly, and allows plenty of give and take between me and you. We’ll have an ongoing dialogue between us to ensure the best plan for you. Really, it only takes five steps to have a full and complete estate plan.

Let’s Talk.

After reading these posts you may still have questions or will want to discuss your personal estate situations. I would love to schedule a time to meet or discuss over the phone. Shoot me an email or give me a call and we’ll start the conversation on what YOU need to leave a lasting legacy and secure future for your loved ones.

If you’re feeling good and want to get started on your estate plan, the best place to begin is with my free, no-obligation Estate Plan Questionnaire.

Pop the popcorn, uncork the champagne, and put on your best red-carpet duds to tune into the 91st Academy Awards tonight! In between award envelopes and amazing performances, consider how your 2019 Oscar ballot has some surprising connections with estate planning. It may sound like a stretch, but hear me out while you watch the pre-show coverage.

Anything Could Happen

If you’re a film buff who has managed to watch all nine of the Best Picture category nominees (first off, I’m jealous), you may have a strong opinion about which one deserves to win. However, just like life, anything could happen! You may bet that Green Book most certainly will be victorious, but in the end, Bohemian Rhapsody ends up taking home the gold with the power of a Freddie Mercury vocal high note. You know one of the films will win, just like you know someday you’re going to pass away. However, you cannot know which one of the films will win ahead of time, just like you cannot know how and when your final scene will be.

Expecting the unexpected is what estate planning boils down to. With something fun and entertaining like the Academy Awards, surprises can make for ready Oscar party fodder. But, when it comes to your estate—all of your assets you worked hard to acquire—surprises can make for frustration and confusionin fighting for your family, extended probate time and fees, and assets being distributed in a way that you wouldn’t have chosen.

Estate planning allows you to make certain your loved ones and the charities you care most about “win,” regardless of when you pass away.

It’s All in the Family

Some of the films nominated this year have familial relationships as a central plot device in the scripts. For instance, the household highlighted in Roma includes four children who the maid (brilliantly played by Yalitza Aparicio) cares for.

People are considered minor children until they turn 18, and parents should have guardianship defined through their estate plans. That way, if something were to happen to the minor’s legal guardian(s), they could be immediately placed under the care of another trusted adult. Unless guardianship has been established, the Iowa Courts must choose guardians for the minor child if the legal guardian died or was incapacitated. Unfortunately, with no clear choice as to what the former caregivers would have preferred, the Court must basically make its own and best determination as to who the parents would have preferred and what would be in the best interest of the children. The Court may or may not, choose who the former caregivers would have named.

Leave a Lasting Legacy

Some of the greatest films of all time have won the “Best Picture” category and left a cinematic legacy that has lasted well beyond their premiere date. These movies and the stories they tell live on in infamy, as generation after generation experiences their contribution to the entertainment industry. Indeed, the plot of nominee Black Panther is largely rooted around how Prince T’Challa will continue his father’s legacy and protect the wealth and assets of Wakanda.

Perhaps one or more of the 2019 Best Picture nominees will join this upper echelon of cinema (and maybe not), but estate planning also allows you to also make a mark on your world—a chance to leave a lasting legacy. A legacy can be interpreted differently by different people. A legacy to you could mean leaving a sizable charitable bequest to your church or alma mater. It could also mean bequeathing your art collection to your favorite museum. It could mean establishing college funds for all of your children and grandchildren to represent your belief in continuous learning. Whatever you envision your legacy to be, an estate plan will allow you to shape it…think of it as your own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame!

hollywood walk of fame star

Retain Your Control

Power is a common theme in some of the films nominated this year. Whether it’s ladies-in-waiting fighting to be Queen Anne’s “chosen one” in The Favourite, or Dick Cheney wielding immense executive branch control in Vice, there is something to be said for retaining control over your assets. I like to tell my clients that estate planning really just allows you to direct who inherits what, when, and how. For most folks, they want to choose where their hard-earned property goes, not the government via Iowa’s intestacy laws.

I’d love to hear your take on films nominated this year, but I’d also like to discuss your estate plan! Don’t hesitate to contact me via email or by phone (515-371-6077). You can also get started on the creation of an estate plan by filling out my free, no-obligation Estate Plan Questionnaire.

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.

books on a table

Hopefully, by now you have had a chance to read last month’s GoFisch Book Club pick, “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.” While I could complain about how the weather right now in Iowa is in a perpetual state of snow-ice-snow-wind-freezing rain, it’s actually a great excuse to curl up with cocoa and a great book. The title for this month is not a new book, but it is an enticing, mystery involving, what else, estate planning!sycamore row

Published in 2013, John Grisham’s Sycamore Row leads readers on a trip to the south in 1980’s Mississippi where a wealthy white man, Seth Hubbard, commits suicide and leaves his entire estate to his black housekeeper, Lettie Lang, instead of his two adult children, Herschel and Ramona. (I bring up the race of the characters because racism and prejudice are important themes in the novel’s setting and plot conflicts.) Sycamore Row is a sequel for fan-favorite character and fictional attorney, Jake Brigance, who was introduced to the world in Grisham’s most famous book, A Time to Kill.

Brigance is instructed by the decedent to defend his will against the inevitable controversy and litigation he anticipates will ensue. Over the course of the thriller, another will is unearthed which disposes the estate to Hubbard’s children. There are also serious questions about Hubbard’s purported testamentary capacity, as well as undue influence on the legal documents in question.

Grisham’s career as an attorney has clearly influenced his writing, and this novel offers suspense and intrigue around the topic of estate planning, while also reinforcing the importance of making a valid estate plan, keeping it updated, and discussing your decisions with your family.

What are your thoughts on Sycamore Row? I would love to hear them! Also, if the book inspires you to make certain you have a valid estate plan in place so that you can disperse your estate in accordance with your wishes, don’t hesitate to contact me! You can also get started on your estate plan with my free, no-obligation Estate Plan Questionnaire.