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Estate planning is one of those pesky things you know you absolutely should do, but it tends to get pushed to the bottom of your continuous to-do list. Even the best plans to make this the year of finally getting your estate plan in order, life happens and things can get hectic. Unfortunately, when you or your loved one needs an estate plan the most, such as in the tragic situation of unexpected disability or death, it’s not readily available.

Together, we’re going to make this year your most prepared one yet! In the spirit of a fresh start, a new year and a new decade, here are six resolutions to set you up for estate plan super success.

Overcome Your Excuses.

It’s understandable why I often hear the same excuses from folks who should have an estate plan (aka everyone older than 18, regardless of age, debts, assets, and marital status), but don’t. Procrastination is a natural part of human nature, especially when you’re putting off perceived conversations on uncomfortable topics like money, death, and taxes. Yet, most people, once they learn the benefits which accrue to a completed estate plan, initial discomfort fades. So, let’s eliminate the three most common excuses:

Not enough time or too busy.

Let’s be honest, there’s never enough time. There never will be. The (sometimes cruel) irony of estate planning is that it’s there for you and your family when you’ve literally run out of time. You’ll be happy to know the bulk of time needed for an estate plan (if you work with a professional…and you should) is thinking about and communicating, what you want to happen with your assets upon passing. Who do you want to be your named as beneficiaries? Who do you want to serve as guardians to your kids? Also, you’ll need to consider carefully who you want to be your financial and health care agents in the case of disability.

(Note that such communicating can be easily done through a tool like my estate plan questionnaire.)

I don’t know where to start.

As excuses go, this has some validity but is easily quashed with a few tools that are available to everyone for free. First, read my post on all the basics of estate planning to get familiar with the six key documents. Second, fill out my free, no-obligation estate plan questionnaire. Truly, estate planning (at least my process), is just five easy steps from start to finish.

It’s too expensive to make an estate plan.

There’s no one-size-fits-all for estate plans. Therefore, costs will depend on your estate’s size, complexity, and your goals. I’ll be completely clear on the exact costs upfront, and that’s a guarantee. This is a major reason why filling out the estate plan questionnaire is such an important first step. Through your completed questionnaire, I can tell what you need, make a recommendation, and give you an exact price.

Keep in mind that it will almost certainly be more expensive for your family and loved ones if you die intestate (without a will). It will not only cost them monetarily, but also, much worse, emotionally as well, the process can be shockingly slow, tedious, and create unnecessary conflict.

man writing down ides in notebook

Organize your digital asset information.

Think of all the information pertinent to your personal and professional life and the finances that you have on your computer. Think of all the important data that’s held entirely in online accounts. Often things like your email accounts, online banking, and storage accounts, for example, are referred to as digital assets. Access to these digital assets will be important for your chosen executor or trustee to handle and settle your estate. A solid estate plan will account for these digital assets and specify who you want to have access to all this data information in order to transfer/settle/close accounts appropriately. Additionally, you’ll want to have a separate, secure document or account (like LastPass, for instance) that lists your all accounts and their login information.

Be Resolute with Revisions

If you already have an estate plan, do a happy dance! You are way ahead of about 60% of the population, which doesn’t even have a basic will (or trust) in place.

While estate plans never expire, they do need to be updated and kept current. If you have a major life event, it may well warrant revisiting your estate plan.  Such life events include marriage or divorce if you establish residency in a new state, the birth of a child, the loss of one of your beneficiaries/executors, or if your financial situation changes significantly.

Speaking of change, remember too that state and federal laws are perpetually changing and when certain rules change, so too must your estate plan. For instance, under the new tax law passed in 2017, the changes to the federal transfer tax exemptions could impact decisions as to if a certain type of trust is applicable. Again, this is where an experienced professional estate planner, whose job it is to stay up on these policy changes so you don’t have to, is beneficial.

Check your Marks

The Gordon Fischer Law Firm Ultimate Estate Planning Checklist makes it easy to visualize your completion rate of all the important documents and related tasks. It’s easy to read, a handy dandy cheat sheet of items to accomplish to get you from zero to superhero in no time.

Estate Planning Checklist GFLF

Plan for an Impact

There is a multitude of ways to practice impactful charitable giving. One incredibly easy way is to name charities near and dear to your heart as beneficiaries in your estate plan. The resolution here? Think about what charities you would like to give to, how much (a figure or percentage), and, if you already have an estate plan, review it. If it doesn’t include your chosen charities, it’s time for an update!

Transform Talk into Trust

When making estate planning decisions it’s important to discuss said decisions with your family (and others included in the plan). Communicating in advance and ensuring your loved ones fully understand the “what” and “why” means there’s a significantly better chance your wishes will be respected and executed fully as you intended. The worst-case scenario in estate planning is litigation over what the deceased (or critically disabled) individual wanted. For instance, if you have an end-stage medical condition, the last thing you want is family fighting over your health care power of attorney or living will. These conversations can be challenging, but ultimately should be conducive to a peaceful transition of assets, reduction of tension between beneficiaries, and a clear understanding of what was communicated and recorded.

Creating an estate plan that achieves your goals is a resolution you can DEFINITELY keep this year (even if that low-carb diet resolution doesn’t quite make it past January). The time it takes is nothing in comparison to the time it will save your loved ones in time, money, and stress! Plus, the peace of mind that comes with knowing your affairs are in order if something were to happen is invaluable. This is your year to be prepared. Let’s get started. Contact me at any time via email (gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com) or phone (515-371-6077) and in the meantime fill out the estate plan questionnaire.

Estate planning is all about strategy—leaving the right assets and inheritances to the right beneficiaries; timely distributions of the estate; and avoiding as many taxes and fees as possible. Another strategic move is deciding whether you and your spouse should use the same lawyer, or whether you should each have your own lawyer.

If you are married, please note you have the option of hiring separate attorneys for your estate planning needs.

Though the goals of most married persons are the same when it comes to wills, trusts, and estate planning, some married individuals (especially individuals who have children from prior marriages) have differing views on the ownership of property and beneficiaries, and naming executors, trustees, and guardians.

Likewise, some married individuals have private information they do not wish to share with their spouse — information that may be essential to the estate planning process that would have to be disclosed to the attorney and, therefore, disclosed to the spouse if I am representing both spouses.

Additionally, sometimes married individuals have “awkward” questions they wish to ask the attorney — questions they would not be comfortable asking in the presence of their spouse, such as how a divorce might affect their estate plan.

By obtaining separate attorneys, you would be able to:

  1. share in confidence any secrets or private information with your attorney that may be important to the estate planning process;
  2. ask in confidence whatever questions you may have; and
  3. receive completely confidential advice and counsel. 

If represented jointly, you will be waiving and losing all three of the above rights with respect to your spouse.

If you decide to obtain separate attorneys, this firm would be pleased to represent either one of you separately. If you are married and decide you would like this firm to represent both of you, then complete this Estate Plan Questionnaire jointly (please do not fill out two separate forms).

Joint Representation

 

Two brides in white wedding dresses

For many married couples, joint representation is a likely choice. The benefits are obvious; joint representation can be cost-effective and can be more efficient since you can work together on a single Estate Plan Questionnaire in preparation to meet with the estate planning lawyer. Another advantage is that the joint representation somewhat forces open and honest communication between you as a couple as you make decisions on beneficiaries (such as children and grandchildren), executors, and disposition of property.

It’s important for your lawyer to avoid conflicts of interest, so they can uphold and respect your attorney-client privilege. If you choose to have joint representation you may waive the conflict of interest clause so that you may be represented together. Or, of course, you can seek separate legal counsel and not sign such a clause.

This communication is critical if you opt for joint representation. Without it, disaster can strike mid-meeting with the lawyer if couples disagree about which child is most responsible in terms of estate execution or how much of a trust fund each beneficiary should receive at age 18.

Individual Representation

 

couple holding hands in green space

There are times when it is best for each spouse to seek separate legal counsel. One such time is when there are different interests that are at odds with each other. For example, if one or both people have children from a previous marriage/relationship that will be named as beneficiaries. There can be conflicting interests between stepparents and stepchildren when it comes to the estate. Additionally, if you both have your own individual estate planning lawyer, you may have more freedom to voice individual concerns, without having to audit your opinions in accordance with your partner’s desires.


Have questions? Need more information? A great place to start is by downloading my Estate Plan Questionnaire, or feel free to reach out at any time; my email is Gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com and cell phone is 515-371-6077. 

stop hand on sign

Based on every statistic I’ve seen, the majority of Americans don’t want anything to do with estate planning or the perceived headaches that come with it. However, making excuses to avoid investing in a valuable legal set of documents (that comes with numerous benefits) will do nothing to cement your legacy and intent for transfer of assets.

Here are some of the excuses I’ve heard from people about why they don’t have an estate plan:

  • “I don’t have any assets, and just a whole bunch of debt.”
  • “Isn’t that just for rich, older people?”
  • “I don’t need an estate plan my wife and kids are going to inherit everything I own.”
  • “I’m super healthy, so I don’t think I would ever need a health care power of attorney.”
  • “My spouse can take care of it.”
  • “Getting a will made for myself is too expensive and time consuming.”
  • “If I talk too much about it, I might jinx myself.”

Yet, everyone over 18-years old, regardless of age, debts, assets, and marital status should have an estate plan in place. (Here are the six “must have” estate planning documents you can focus on initially.) In the beginning it may feel uncomfortable talking about the details of your estate plan—that’s normal. But, there is deep and lasting peace of mind in knowing that there is a plan in place in the event of your incapacitation or untimely death, which far outweighs any discomfort.

So, cast off all excuses by embracing the benefits of having a strong estate plan in place. The benefits include, but are certainly not limited to, peace of mind, financial security for your family, established guardianships for your children, reducing taxes, fees, and costs, and saving your family and friends untold time, trouble, and heartbreak.

Have questions? Need more information?

A great place to start is the Estate Plan Questionnaire. Of course, feel free to reach out any time. You can contact me by email at Gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com or give me a call at 515-371-6077.

Gordon Fischer at desk

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

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

Cost of an estate plan as an issue

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

One Size Does NOT Fit All

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

clothes on hanger

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

Let’s Talk About Your EPQ

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

Only Then, My Bill

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

change and wallet on table

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

Checklist with coffee and croissant

It’s National Estate Planning Awareness Week! In an effort to break down the barriers, myths, and excuses surrounding estate planning, I’ve created this handy dandy ultimate estate planning checklist. It runs down just about everything you need in terms of a comprehensive, quality estate plan including the six major documents, reviewing beneficiary designations, considering if a trust is applicable to you, and discussing your estate plan with your loved ones.

Estate Planning Checklist GFLF

 

I would love to help you check these items off your list. If you want to get started, download my Estate Plan Questionnaire. Or, you can contact me to discuss your individual situation and what estate planning provisions make the most sense for you!

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.