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scary jack-o-lantern

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

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

Downright hair-raising!

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

graveyard with gravestones

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

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

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

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

It’s too expensive to make an estate plan. 

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

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

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


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

cloudy moon

DON’T DARE READ THIS ALONE!

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

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

[Blood-curdling screams]

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

[Angry mob shouts in disbelief]

spooky castle

Iowa is NOT a Community Property State

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

What are Community Property Laws?

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

Bride and groom holding hands

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

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

Death or Divorce in Community Property States

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

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

cert of divorce

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

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

Which States have Community Property Laws?

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

What About all the Other States?

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

Death or Divorce in Common Law Property States

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

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

Man in street looking at house

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Standing over yellow line in road- community property

Mob With Pitchforks Goes After Iowa Estate Planner

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

 Questions or Concerns About Community Property?

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

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.

Heirs at law on beach

Before I explain the concept of “heirs at law,” you might be thinking, why even bring this up? Of what relevance is this “Ye Olde Sounding Phraise” in today’s modern world?

It’s important for me to share the concept of “heirs at law” with you, dear GoFisch blog Reader, for three reasons.

  1. It helps explain why I, and other estate planners, ask so many darn questions. We need lots of info.
  2. The concept of “heirs at law” shows that you need to be open and honest and forthcoming with me, or any estate planner. Without complete transparency and truth, the estate plan runs the risk of being useless (the idea of “garbage in, garbage out” applies here).
  3. “Heirs at law” is yet another reason that a DIY will, or using an online service to produce your will, is just a terrible idea. You need an estate plan crafted by a trusted professional, unique to your special needs. Every family is different, so there can be no “one-size-fits-all” estate plan, and there are many moving parts to a comprehensive estate plan.

With that established, what does the term “heirs at law” actually mean?

Heirs at law are those folks who would inherit your property in the event you died without a will, which is called intestacy.1 It is critically important to determine who the heirs at law are, even for people not subject to the laws of intestacy (i.e., folks who have a will) for two big reasons.

  1. Heirs at law must be notified of the probate process.
  2. Heirs at law are allowed to challenge the will in probate court.

All in the (sometimes complicated) family

As I already stated, it’s a wise idea to work with your estate planner and provide all the information requested. As a practical matter, the extent of information you’ll need to provide your estate planner regarding heirs at law depends of the nature of your family and relatives. For instance, in the case of two people, married only to each other, with children only from that one marriage—then the spouse and children (and perhaps grandchildren) will be the obvious heirs at law.

In another example, a family could also constitute a remarriage with each spouse having children from previous relationships. In this case, the stepchildren would need to be adopted by the applicable stepparent to be considered an heir at law.

In other situations, the client relatives may be much more distant, requiring more fact investigation. For example, take the case of a client who is unmarried and without children. In such a situation, the estate planner will need to pay close attention to identifying other relatives.

Of course, with an estate plan you can bequeath your estate to whomever you choose. You don’t have to give anything to any of your obvious or non-obvious heirs at law or any other relative for that matter. (In colloquial terms we could call this “stiffing your relatives.”) Although with that said, you cannot choose to disinherit a spouse.

This point reiterates why the estate planner should know and have updated contact information of who are the heirs at law. Again, it’s required that heirs at law be notified of probate process and these heirs (unlike a non-relative work colleague or neighbor) also have the legal standing to contest the will in court.

Another reason the estate planner must have knowledge of the heirs at law is to ward off fraudulent claims if need be. This reason is particularly important if the heirs at law are distant relatives. (An unfortunate real-world example of this involves Prince and the complicated intestate process following the singer’s passing without an estate plan.)

Bottom line: heirs at law are important when it comes to the distribution of your estate (with or without a will). Of course, dying intestate is NOT optimal and you DO need a will for a number of important reasons. I’d love to discuss the topic over the phone (515-371-6077) or via email. Don’t hesitate to contact me at any time!


[1] Bonus word! If an Iowan dies without a valid will, they die “intestate” and the laws of “intestate” succession are used to determine who will inherit the estate.

woman with tattoos

A will is the bedrock of every estate plan. But, even though most people know they should have one, they don’t know what a will is, what goes in it, or how it works. In fact, only one in four adults in America (25%) has a will—that’s roughly the same number who have tattoos (23%). Look at it this way: you can take your tattoo to the grave, but your assets that stay above ground need to be administered properly.

Wills: the bottom line

A will is a legal document that provides for the orderly distribution of your personal property at death according to your wishes. It spells out your directions regarding other important matters such as the care of any minor children, the transition of business assets, and the naming of an executor who will oversee its directives are followed.

What if you DON’T have a will

Not having a will means the judicial system (the “court”) will end up administrating your estate through the lengthy process of probate in accordance with state intestate laws. There is no guarantee this process will result in dispersing your assets in the way you would have wanted. This process can cost your family not only a lot of time and money, but it can also lead to anxiety and heartache.

Will is NOT an estate plan, and vice versa

The will is the bedrock document of every estate plan, and it’s a little more complicated than other documents. With your will, you’ll be answering four basic but very important questions. I’ll list the questions, then discuss each separately.

a. Who do you want to have your stuff?

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

c. Who do you want to take care of your children? If you have minor children (i.e., children under age 18), you’ll want to designate a legal guardian(s) who will take care of your children until they are adults.

d. What charities do you want to benefit when you’re gone. A will is a great way to benefit your favorite nonprofits.

Who do you want to have your stuff?

A will provides orderly distribution of your property at death according to your wishes. Your property includes both tangible and intangible things. (An example of tangible items would be your coin collection. An example of an intangible asset would be stocks.)

A will provides the orderly distribution of your tangible and intangible property at death according to your wishes.

Tangible personal property is usually considered to be everything (other than land) that has physical substance and can be touched, held, and felt. Examples of tangible personal property include furniture, vehicles, baseball cards, jewelry, art, your Great-aunt Millie’s teaspoon collection, and pets. Intangible personal property doesn’t have a physical existence so it can’t be touched, but it nevertheless has value. Your intangible personal property might include bank accounts, stocks, bonds, insurance policies, and retirement benefit accounts.

Most people think “real estate” or “land” when they hear the word “property,” but “property” has a different meaning when it comes to estate planning.

There are generally considered two basic categories of property: real property and personal property. Real property is land and whatever is built on the land, attached to it, or natural to it such houses, barns, grain silos, tile drainage lines, and mineral rights. Personal property is essentially anything that is not real property. Two qualities of personal property to keep in mind: it is moveable and it can be hidden. Jewelry, cash, a pension, and antiques are kinds of personal property.

Example: The fenced acreage you own is real property because it is land that is immovable. But, the cattle on it are personal property because they can be moved—or hidden.

Who’s in charge?

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

An executor is a person who’s in charge of your estate plan. You entrust your executor with the authority to ensure that your wishes are carried out and that your affairs are in order.

Managing an estate plan is not an awful job, but it is an awful lot of responsibility. If you have never dealt with the execution of a will, you might not know how time-consuming, complicated, and demanding it can be. You may also be grieving at the deceased’s passing while trying to make sure all particulars are handled properly. It can be a stressful role, to say the least.

When picking an executor, you want to make sure it’s someone you trust, but also someone you know can handle the complexities and responsibilities of the job. We all have people in our lives whom we love, but recognize they’re not dependable when it comes to things like finances and managing paperwork. Choose someone in your life who is organized, detail-oriented, and can take on what is essentially the part-time job of administrating your estate.

If there’s no person in your life you believe trustworthy or capable enough to be your executor, or you don’t want to burden with the role, you have another option: appointing a corporate executor or trustee. You can find corporate executors and trustees at banks and private investment firms. They usually charge a fee based on the size of the estate. But corporate executors and trustees have the advantages of experience, a dedicated staff, and impartiality. The latter quality is particularly important if there are complicated family dynamics, such as blended families or bad blood.

Whether you choose someone you know or appoint a corporate executor or trustee, you need to sit down with that person for a formal discussion. For a friend or family member, make clear why you’ve assigned him or her the role. Avoid surprises: don’t keep the name of your executor a secret. If you chose one of your children to be your executor, make sure to tell the other(s) to avoid hurt feelings and strife after you’re gone.

Additionally, if you have a large or complicated estate, you would like to set up long-term trusts, or you worry about taxes, a corporate executor or trustee might be a good solution.

Who gets the kids?

For parents with minor children (those younger than 18 years old), it is critically important that you designate a guardian(s) who will be legally responsible for their education, health, and physical care until they reach adulthood. Like the executor’s, it is job that requires you choose someone you trust, but it encompasses so much more than the able administration of your estate—and it doesn’t end after the estate is closed.

In most cases, the surviving parent assumes guardianship of children without a Court intervening. However, there are still a number of factors to consider when choosing a guardian, including parenting style, financial situation, religious and personal values, age, and location. You need to have an in-depth conversation with any potential guardian or guardians to confirm everyone is comfortable with the arrangement and that he or she is prepared for this responsibility.

In Iowa, dying without establishing guardianship results in the Court choosing a child or children’s caregiver(s). It considers what is in the best interest of the child and makes a guess as to the person or people a parent would have wanted. The choice might be someone the deceased parent would never have selected—all the more reason to name a legal guardian in your will.

Tattoo estate planning on your to-do list

Go ahead get that tattoo and wear it proud all the way to the very end. But while you’re showing your ink off, also think about what you want to do with all of your assets. Talk to a qualified estate planner or get started with estate planning by filling out my free, no-obligation estate plan questionnaire. Any questions? Don’t hesitate to contact me at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com or by phone 515-371-6077.

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.

father's day

Happy Father’s Day to all the dads, grandpas, uncles, and father figures out there! There are many kinds of fathers, from the beer-drinking to the book-reading, from the golf-loving to the car-fixing, to all of the above. And, just like there’s not one kind of way to be a dad, there’s no single type of father that needs an estate plan; everyone needs an estate plan regardless of the size of your tool shed. That’s why today is a great day to talk to your dad about estate planning.

Of course, estate planning can be a difficult subject to broach over grilling or yard work, but it’s an important conversation to have to see where your father is at. And, you can’t go buy an estate plan at the store or have one made for him, but in terms of long-term value, an estate plan is one of the best moves your dad could make.

Your father has likely taught you so much over the years. This could be your opportunity to give back to him and help him out with something for once by sharing information or just offering encouragement to complete the estate planning process.  Let’s consider a couple of different scenarios.

If Your Dad Doesn’t Know Much About Estate Planning

That’s okay! This is your chance to share some important basics about what estate planning entails. There are three main points you can pass along and then feel free to direct him to an experienced estate planning attorney who can explain the rest.

  1. Without an estate plan, there are major detriments. You cannot choose who receives your assets, how much and when. If a father has minor children they cannot choose who is the main guardian for the children if something were to happen to both parents/guardians. Without an estate plan, you also cannot choose your executor (the person to carry out the closing of your estate). Furthermore, if you die without an estate plan, all your assets— house, savings, retirement plans, and so on—will pass to your heirs at law as specified under Iowa’s statutes. Also, without an estate plan, the probate process can be even more cumbersome, time-consuming, and difficult on what is likely to already be a stressful time for loved ones.
  2. A basic estate plan includes six key documents. An estate plan questionnaire helps to organize important information in a single document. (Your estate planner will use this to ensure the documents are individualized to your estate’s unique needs.) A “last will and testament” is just one of those documents. The other documents in a basic estate planning package include: health care power of attorney; financial power of attorney (including an advanced directive, if desired); disposition of personal property; and disposition of final remains.
  3.  Your dad may be in need of a trust depending on his estate planning goals, size of the estate, and other considerations like ownership business.

Getting started with the process is easy. I recommend starting with my free, no-obligation estate plan questionnaire or giving me a call.

If Your Dad Already Has an Estate Plan

Give your dad a high-five because he’s ahead of the curve! Seriously, more than half of Americans do not have essential estate planning documents. However, there may be some points that you dad forgot about or needs to revisit.

Beneficiary Designations

Beneficiary designations are notoriously forgotten because they can be set once and then, even if things change, people forget to switch the name. Imagine the scenario of Beneficiary designations (sometimes called PODs and TODs) on accounts like savings and checking accounts, life insurance, annuities, 401(k)s, pensions, and IRAs. Make sure that designations are correctly filled out and supplied to the appropriate institution. Of course, remember to keep these beneficiary designations current as well.

Revisit Regularly

If things change in your personal life you may well need to update your estate plan. Some examples are if marital status changes; a new child or grandchild is born; a named beneficiary passes away; you move to a new state or buy property in a different state; or there’s a significant change in financial situation.

Additionally, sometimes changes to laws (like the federal tax code) can impact the structure and most advantageous tools for estate planning. Any estate planner worth their weight should be able to tell you if your current estate plan aligns with any changes to laws.

I recommend to my clients that they review their estate plans once a year to make sure everything still fits with your estate planning goals.

Give the Best Gift this Father’s Day

I understand you can’t really “give” your dad an estate plan, but you can help him check this major legal “must” off the life checklist by helping point him the right direction. You can also offer your assistance when it comes to gathering important documents or information for the Estate Plan Questionnaire. Let your dad know that when he’s ready to discuss his planning decisions that you’ll be there to listen, and if necessary, bring your siblings (if any) and other family members to the table so that everyone is on the same page. (Note that all the aforementioned information totally applies to mothers too!)

father with family

Questions, concerns, or otherwise from you or your father? Contact me at any time via email or phone (515-371-6077). I also offer a free consultation and make house calls!

 

I KEEP six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.– Rudyard Kipling

I’ll use all six “serving men”—what, why, when, how, where, and who, albeit sometimes in slightly different order—to explain three broad topics: (1) estate planning; (2) trusts; and (3) business succession planning. If you’re unsure of any of the three topics listed, this is the blog post for you.

man taking notes in notebook

WHAT is an Estate Plan, Anyway?

What do we talk about when we talk about estate planning? There are six documents that should be part of everyone’s estate plan. Additionally, you should also keep these six documents updated and current. It’s also important you take note of assets with beneficiary designations (such as those on IRAs and bank accounts).

WHO Needs an Estate Plan? Everyone!

Everyone needs an estate plan. If you’re young, healthy, unmarried, have no children, and have no significant or unusual assets, perhaps you could talk me into the idea that you don’t entirely need an estate plan. Even in such exceedingly rare cases, I strongly recommend making sure your beneficiary designations are completed and up-to-date.

For example, beneficiary designations can be found on your checking and savings accounts and on your retirement benefit plan. But, if you’re married, and/or have kids, and/or have significant or unusual assets, and/or own part or all of a business, you most definitely need an estate plan.

WHY Do You Need an Estate Plan?

Estate planning is not exactly material for scintillating conversation. In fact, I’d bet most of us like to avoid this topic because it can be confusing, and requires lots of decision-making. And, yes, it forces one to think about the mortality of loved ones and the self. Estate planning, after all, is a roadmap about what you want to happen after you move on from this life. While it may not be a fun topic, it is indeed a necessary one. If you die without an estate plan, there are several negative consequences.

Without an estate plan, you cannot choose who receives your estate assets.

If you die without a will, you leave the decision of who will receive your property, in what amount, and when up to the Iowa legislature and/or Iowa courts. With this situation, there is always the very real possibility that the distribution of your estate will be greatly different than if you had chosen it through an estate plan.

Without an estate plan, you cannot choose a guardian for your minor children.

If you die without an estate plan, Iowa courts will choose guardians for your children. One of the most important aspects of a will is that it allows you to designate who will be the guardian for your children. This can ensure that your children are cared for by the person that you want, not who the court chooses for you.

Without an estate plan, Iowa courts will choose your estate’s executor.

If you die without an estate plan, the probate court is forced to name an executor. The executor of your estate handles tasks like paying your creditors and distributing the rest of your assets to your heirs. If the probate court has to pick who will be your estate’s executor, there is always a chance that you would not have approved of that person if you had been alive. If you have an estate plan, your will names a trusted executor who will carry out all of your final wishes, pay your bills, and distribute your assets as you intended.

Without an estate plan, you can’t help your favorite nonprofits.

If you die without an estate plan, all your assets— house, savings, retirement plans, and so on—will pass to your heirs at law as specified under Iowa’s statutes. If you have an estate plan, you can include gifts to your favorite nonprofits and see that they are helped for many years to come.

HOW Do You Structure Your Estate Plan?

light bulb on post-it note

Again, there are six basic documents that should be part of everyone’s estate plan:

  1. Estate Planning Questionnaire
  2. Last will and testament
  3. Power of attorney for health care
  4. Power of attorney for finance
  5. Disposition of personal property
  6. Disposition of final remains

We’ll go through each document briefly, so you have a sense of what each entails.

Estate Planning Questionnaire

Estate planning involves facing heavy questions, and depending on the number of assets and beneficiaries you have, may take quite a bit of time and thought. I recommend clients (and even those who aren’t my clients) complete an Estate Plan Questionnaire. An Estate Plan Questionnaire is a simple way to get all of your information in one place and makes it easier for your attorney to build your estate plan.

As with any project, it helps “to begin with the end in mind.” A questionnaire can help get you there.

hand holding orb

Last Will and Testament

Now let’s discuss your last will and testament. In sum, you’ll be answering three major questions:

Q1. Who do you want to have your stuff?

This includes both tangible and intangible things. An example of a tangible item would be your coin collection. An example of an intangible asset would be stocks.

Q2. Who do you want to be in charge of carrying out your wishes as expressed in the will?

The “executor” is the person who will be responsible for making sure the will is carried out as written.

Q.3. If you have kids under age 18: who do you want to take care of your minor children?

You’ll want to designate a legal guardian(s) who will take care of your minor children until they are adults.

Power of Attorney for Health Care

A power of attorney (POA) for health care designates someone to handle your healthcare decisions for you if you become unable to make those decisions for yourself. A healthcare POA can govern any kind of decision that is related to your health that you want to address. A healthcare POA may include decisions related to organ donation, hospitalization, treatment in a nursing home, home health care, psychiatric treatment, and more.

For example, if you don’t want to be kept alive with machines, you can make this clear in your POA for healthcare. But, keep in mind your POA for health care isn’t just about end-of-life decisions, again, it can cover any medical situation.

Power of Attorney for Finance

The power of attorney for financial matters is similar to the health care document just discussed, only your designated agent has the power to make decisions and act on your behalf when it comes to your finances. This gives them the authority to pay bills, settle debts, sell property, or anything else that needs to be done if you become incapacitated and unable to do this yourself.

It might be obvious by now, but I’ll state it just in case: choosing an agent for a power of attorney requires that you think long and hard about who would be best suited for the job and who can be trusted.

woman on laptop on patio

Disposition of Personal Property

Now, let’s get to the disposition of the personal property. This is where you get specific about items you want particular people to have. If you’re leaving everything to one or two people, then you may not need to fill this out. But, if you know you want your niece Beth to have a specific piece of jewelry, and your cousin Karl to have that bookshelf he loved, then you’d say so in this document.

Disposition of Final Remains

The disposition of final remains document is where you get to tell your loved ones exactly how you want your body to be treated after you pass away. It can be as general as simply saying “I want to be cremated and scattered in my garden,” or it can be specific and include details of plots you’ve already purchased or arrangements you’ve already made.

Beneficiary Designations

Along with the six basic estate planning documents, don’t forget about your assets with beneficiary designations.

Common accounts with beneficiary designations include savings and checking accounts, life insurance, annuities, 401(k)s, pensions, and IRAs are all transferred via beneficiary designations. These beneficiary designations actually trump your will!

Regarding assets with beneficiary designations, you must make sure that designations are correctly filled out and supplied to the appropriate institution. Remember to keep these beneficiary designations updated and current.

WHEN Do You Update Your Estate Plan?

Let’s say you’ve gone to an estate planning lawyer, and these six basic estate planning documents have been drafted and signed. What else? You need to keep these documents updated and current. If you undergo a major life event, you may well want to revisit with your estate planning lawyer, to see if this life event requires changing your estate planning documents.

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

  • Selling or buying land
  • Birth or adoption of a child or grandchild
  • Marriage or divorce
  • Illness or disability of your spouse
  • Purchasing a home or other large asset
  • Moving to another state
  • Large increases or decreases in the value of assets, such as investments
  • If you or your spouse receives a large inheritance or gift
  • If any family member, or another heir, dies, becomes ill, or is incapacitated

This is just a short list of life events that should cause you to reconsider your estate plan. There are many others; if you think you might have undergone a major life event, check with your estate planning lawyer.

WHERE Do You Keep Your Estate Plan?

You should store your estate planning documents in a safe place, such as a fireproof safe at home, or a safety-deposit box. Another option in our digital era is storage on the “cloud.” Just make sure the important agents under your estate plan—say, for example, the executor of your will, or power of attorney representative—can access the documents if and when the need arises. For most folks, that’s enough: the six documents, keeping the documents current and remembering about those assets with beneficiary designations.

Don’t Forget About Benefiting Charities!

Perhaps most importantly, through proper estate planning, you can help your favorite charities in ways large and small. One common way grantors elect to support the causes and organizations they care about is by naming them as a beneficiary of a certain amount or percentage of the estate’s assets.

Time for a Trust?

Wait a second…what do you mean by “for most folks, that’s enough?” Indeed, for most Iowans what I’ve outlined here is enough. There may be folks who have a high net worth, or who have complex assets (for example, more than one piece of real estate), or own part or all of a robust business, or otherwise have unusual situations. In such cases, a trust may be helpful. That’s considered more “advanced” estate planning and will mean additional conversations and collaboration on what estate planning tools work best for the situation.

See? That wasn’t so bad!

Whether it’s complicated or simple, it does require some thought and time. But, it’s worth the investment. A proper estate plan can save you and your estate costs and fees, help your family and friends, and provide you peace of mind.

Do you have an estate plan? Why or why not? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below. You can reach me at any time at 515-371-6077 or gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com.

Everyone has unique needs and thus every estate plan needs to be personalized. Online templates for estate plans won’t cover the nuances of your life, wishes, and assets. The best place to start on your personalized estate plan is with my Estate Planning Questionnaire.

red poppies memorial day

I want to take this moment on Memorial Day to express my deep gratitude for the fallen heroes and military veterans who have served America. Indeed, we can enjoy the land of free only because of these brave individuals.

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

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

man with army parachute

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

So, in an attempt to express my gratitude, I would like to offer 25% off the cost of an estate plan package to all Iowan active duty or retired service members and first responders. The rate also extends to spouses. The discount will be available through 6/30/2019. Contact me via email or by phone (515-371-6077) to lock in the rate and discuss your estate plan needs.

Veterans Day flags

What Does an Estate Plan Include?

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

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

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

Special Estate Planning Consideration for Veterans

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

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

Cost of an Estate Plan

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

Estate Planning Process

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

DISCLAIMERS

The “Memorial Day discount” is only applicable for estate plans created by active or retired veterans and first responders (and their spouses). Availability of the discount ends after June 30, 2019 at which point the prospective client must have contacted Gordon Fischer Law Firm and indicated an intention to make an estate plan.
Memorial Day discount merely relates to pricing and in no way creates an attorney-client relationship, nor any other kind of professional relationship. The Memorial Day discount does not create a contract or agreement of any kind.
Gordon Fischer Law Firm, P.C. retains full and total discretion as to who it chooses to serve as clients and why. Gordon Fischer Law Firm, P.C. retains the right to refuse service to anyone it so chooses.
The Memorial Day discount may not apply to individuals or families with a net worth of more than $1 million dollars. (High net worth families definitely need an estate plan, very much so, but the applied strategies and tools will be more complicated.)
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.