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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 build. 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? Tell me in the comments below!

“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 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.

man reading newspaper

If spelling tests weren’t always your strong suit in school, fear not! Today’s legal word of the day is an easy one that’s having a momentary editorial heyday.

Ripped From the Headlines

As you probably heard, The New York Times took the highly unusual step of publishing an unsigned, anonymous op-ed entitled, “I am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration.” The person was identified only as follows:

“…. a senior official in the Trump administration whose identity is known to us and whose job would be jeopardized by its disclosure. We believe publishing this essay anonymously is the only way to deliver an important perspective to our readers.”

man with newspaper near train

Whodunnit?

The article led to a nationwide guessing game. Who is the senior official in the Trump administration who penned this “explosive” piece? Suspicion fell onto, of all people, Vice President Mike Pence. This is because the op-ed writer uses the word “lodestar,” and Pence has used this obscure word multiple times. (Pence vehemently denied he was the author, by the way.)

I don’t know who wrote the op-ed, and we may never know, but the real winner out of this news cycle is the word you never knew you needed in your vocabulary—lodestar!

So, What DOES Lodestar Mean?

Lodestar means “a star that leads or guides,” and is especially used in relation to the North Star.

timelapse of stars

Now, Let’s Talk About a Similar Kind of “Star”

At this point you’re like, “Gordon, this is a cool word I can def use in playing Scrabble, but what does it have to do with the law?”

Well, “lodestar” is a synonym and practically interchangeable with the word “polestar,” which is defined as a “directing principle; a guide.”

A court will use the term polestar like so: In this case, our polestar must be this principle . . .

Basically the court will use such-and-such as its guiding principle.

direction sign on a mountain

For example, in the law of wills, the Iowa Supreme Court stated In the Estate of Twedt that “the testator’s [maker of the will’s] intent is the polestar and if expressed must prevail.” You’ll see the same in the law of trusts, the intent of the settlor of a trust must be the polestar.

The word is also used in the law of charitable giving. The intent of the donor is the polestar which courts must follow if there are any issues. For example, suppose a donor posthumously donates $100,000 to a nonprofit, but the nonprofit no longer exists. What was the donor’s intent? Is it stated anywhere what the donor wanted to happen to the charitable funds if the nonprofit was no more? If not written, did the donor discuss the matter with anyone? To resolve any dispute involving a charitable gift, the guiding principle–the polestar–must be the donor’s intent.

Practical application of the Word Polestar

A major reason to have an estate plan is that YOU get to control your own future, rather than being controlled by outside forces or outside events. Through proper estate planning, you can be in total control of the answers to the following questions:

And if there are any questions or issues regarding your estate plan, lawyers and judges looking at your estate plan will make decisions based on YOUR intent. Your intent will be the polestar!

Don’t delay any longer – thank your lucky (North) stars you still have time to make a proper estate plan. I’d be happy to talk with you about your estate plan any time, or you can get started on organizing your important info in my free Estate Plan Questionnaire. I can be reached via email (gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com) or by cell (515-371-6077). I’d truly love to hear from you.

Better Call Saul's Bob Odenkirk

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

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

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

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

Thinking you only need a will

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

Settling for a DIY estate plan

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

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

Failing to keep your estate plan updated

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

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

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

Not getting an estate plan at all

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

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

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

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

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

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

national make-a-will month

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

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

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

Why Does a Will Matter?

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

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

Regular Revisions

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

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

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

Where There’s a Will There’s a Way

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

magnifying glass over book

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

bookcase with ladder

Two Broad Classifications

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

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

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

Intangible and Tangible Property

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

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

Pop Quiz!

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

Your Twitter account.

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

Your IRA.

Again, this is intangible property.

Farmland, including its silos and fences.

Real property.

Your comic book collection.

Tangible property!

MacBook Air laptop computer.

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

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

What Happens to Your Property When You Die?

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

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

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

Before we dig in to the details of what role a health care power of attorney document is and how it fits into the grand estate plan scheme let’s consider three hypotheticals.

Health hypothetical #1

Jill is in a serious car accident. While chances of recovery are good, it will take time. In the meantime, Jill is necessarily on serious painkillers and in recovery she’s sleeping much more than usual. Between her injuries, medications, and need for sleep, Jill isn’t particularly communicative.

Health hypothetical #2

Sam is beginning to suffer from early onset dementia. Things become harder to remember. He feels almost as if a fog is falling around him. It’s growing worse. Even simple concepts, or simple choices, are becoming more difficult for him.

Health hypothetical #3

Elizabeth suffers from manic depressive disorder. Most of the time, drugs, therapy, and a regime of proper exercise and sleep keep the disease in check. But, still she has “episodes” of an exhilarating, super energizing high, followed by a dark crash into deep depression.

Common Legal Need for Jill, Sam, and Elizabeth?

Jill, Sam, and Elizabeth have very different diagnoses and face very different challenges. But, in at least one way, Jill, Sam, and Elizabeth are the same. All three would be wise, for multiple common-sensical reasons, to execute a a health care power of attorney (“health care PoA”).

We’ll come back to Jill, Sam, and Elizabeth shortly, but first let’s discuss the basics of an estate plan and in particular a health care PoA.

Health Care PoA: One of Six “Must Have” Estate Plan Legal Documents

An estate plan is a set of legal documents to prepare you (and your family and loved ones) for your death or disability. There are six basic estate plan legal documents that nearly everyone should have:

1. Estate plan questionnaire
2. Last will and testament
3. Health care power of attorney (option for living will)
4. Financial power of attorney
5. Disposition of personal property
6. Disposition of Final Remains and Instructions

There are numerous other important estate planning tools, such as trusts, but these six documents are a common part of most everyone’s complete estate plan. And, the health care power of attorney document is certainly an important part of your overall estate plan.

Serious Incapacitation

A health care PoA becomes critically important when you’re seriously incapacitated and unable to make health care decisions for yourself. This new state of incapacitation, preventing you from making your own health care decisions, might be the result of serious illness, injury, lack of mental capacity, or some combination of all of these.

alarm clock with red cross on it

How Health Care PoA Works

A health care PoA is a legal document that allows you to select the person (your “agent”) that you want to make health care decisions on your behalf, if and when you become unable to make them for yourself.

Once your health care PoA goes into effect (typically most people elect to have this be the case only if an attending physician certifies you are unable to make medical decisions independently), your agent will then be able to make decisions for you based on the information you provided in your health care PoA. If there are no specifics in your health care PoA relating to a unique situation, your agent can and should make health care decisions for you based on your best interests. Obviously, the person you select as a your health care PoA agent should be someone in whom you have the utmost trust.

Equally important, your agent will be able to access your medical records, communicate with your health care providers, and so on.

Many Types of Health Care Decision

Keep in mind your health care PoA isn’t just about end-of-life decisions; it can cover many types of medical situations and decisions. For instance, you may choose to address organ donation, hospitalization, treatment in a nursing home, home health care, psychiatric treatment, and other situations in your health care PoA.

For people who feel strongly about not wanting to be kept alive with machines, specifically covered in a document that can be thought of as a part of your health care PoA known as a living will. brightly colored pills

What Happens Without Health Care PoA?

If don’t have a health care PoA and you should become disabled to the degree where you are unable to make health care decisions for yourself, your doctor(s) will ask your family and loved ones what to do.

You might disagree with the decision your family makes. Or, your family members may not be able to agree on how to handle your medical care.

Ultimately, if your immediate family members cannot agree on a course of action, they would have to go to an Iowa Court and have a conservator/guardian appointed for you. It may, or may not, be someone you would have chosen. Further, the conservator/guardian may make decisions you wouldn’t have made.

Going to court to plead for a guardianship and conservatorship is all very complicated, time consuming, and expensive. This is especially true when compared with the convenience of simply putting a health care PoA in place should the need arise. A healthc are PoA gives you control over how decisions are made for you, and the agent you choose will carry out your wishes.

No “One-Size-Fits-All” Health Care PoA

All Iowans are special and unique and have special and unique issues and concerns. It’s completely up to YOU as to what’s contained in your health care PoA. You name the agent(s). You decide what medical decisions will be covered and how. It’s all up to you.

Health Care PoAs in our Hypothetical Examples

Speaking of everyone’s unique needs, a health care PoA would help Jill, Sam, and Elizabeth, despite their disparate diagnoses and circumstances.

Jill, who suffered severe injuries in a car accident, could use a health care PoA.

Sam, who has early onset dementia, needs a health care PoA.

Elizabeth, with her mental health diagnosis, would benefit from a health care PoA.

Do you have a Health Care PoA Yet?

We never know when or if an accident or illness will befall us and if it will render us incapacitated. Of course, we all hope that’s never a reality, but it’s better to be prepared in the off chance the unexpected becomes existence.

Do you have further questions about a health care PoA for you or your family? You can email me anytime at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com or call me on my cell at 515-371-6077.

Are you interested in securing your future through putting into place a solid estate plan? A great first step is to download my helpful (and free!) Estate Plan Questionnaire.

red poppies memorial day

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

Memorial Day quote with red poppies

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

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

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

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

us flag marching band

What Does an Estate Plan Include?

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

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

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

Special Estate Planning Consideration for Veterans

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

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

American flag on window

Cost of an Estate Plan

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

Estate Planning Process

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

Washington Memorial with man in front

DISCLAIMERS

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

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

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

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

All in the Family

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

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

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

English moors

First Wuthering Heights Lesson: Stop the Procrastination

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

What Happened to the Estate

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

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

Second Wuthering Heights Lesson: Intestate Succession

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

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

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

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

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

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Write Your Plan Before “The End”

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

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

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One of the six main parts of an estate plan that every adult Iowan should have is a health care power of attorney (POA). This legal instrument allows you to designate the person that you want to make health care decisions for you in the chance that you become incapacitated and unable to make such decisions for yourself.

Who can be my Health Care POA Representative?

The person you pick is your agent/representative for purposes of health care decision-making and should be (a) a competent legal adult; (b) someone you trust would make health care decisions that align with your best interests; and (c) someone who agrees to the role. Some people elect to have the same person be their designated proxy for both the health care and financial powers of attorney. Other folks choose two different individuals for these roles.

It is highly advised to name an alternate representative in case the person you appoint becomes unable or unwilling to act on your behalf.

The law does not allow your health care designated agent to be a health care professional providing health care to you on the date you sign the document. It also cannot be any employee of the doctor, nurse, or any hospital or health care facility providing care to you. The only exception is if that employee is a close relative.

What types of Health Care Decisions does a POA Cover?

A health care power of attorney can govern any kind of decision that is related to your health that you allow. You could, for example, limit your representative to certain types of decisions. Or, you could allow your representative to make decisions for any type of health care choice/issue that may arise. This includes decisions to give, withhold, or withdraw informed consent to any medical and surgical treatments. Other decisions could relate to psychiatric treatment, nursing care, hospitalization, treatment in a nursing home, home health care, and organ donation.

 

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When Would I use a Health Care POA?

A health care POA comes into play only when, in the certified and recorded opinion of your attending physician, you are unable to make health care decisions for yourself. Your named agent is then able to make decisions regarding your care, receive access to records, communicate with health care providers, and other important actions that would otherwise be off limits.

What is a Living Will?

The name of this document is bit of a misnomer. Sometimes referred to as an advanced directive, a living will is best thought of as a written declaration that informs health care providers of your desire to NOT have life-sustaining treatment continue if you are diagnosed as terminally ill or injured, are unable to communicate your choices regarding your treatment, and such treatment would simply prolong the inevitable and imminent process of dying. You may consider a living will an important part of the whole that is your health care power of attorney document

Under Iowa’s Living Will Law, a living will does not permit withholding or withdrawing food or water unless they are provided intravenously or by a feeding tube. Additionally, medication or medical procedures necessary to provide comfort or to ease pain are not considered life sustaining, and may not be withheld.

Because of the sensitive nature of the living will, before signing the document make certain the provisions included align with your philosophical and/or religious beliefs and wishes.

Important Definitions

Life-sustaining treatment” is defined as the use of medical machinery such as heart-lung machines, ventilators, tube feeding, and other medical techniques that may sustain and possibly extend your life, but which won’t, by themselves, cure your condition.

Terminal condition,” under Iowa law, is defined as an incurable or irreversible condition that without life sustaining procedures, results in death within a relatively short time or a comatose state from which there can be no recovery, to a reasonable degree of medical certainty.

In all states the determination as to whether you are in such a medical condition is determined by qualified medical professionals—typically your attending physician and at least one other medical doctor who has examined or reviewed your medical situation. The decision must be recorded in your medical records.

 

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How do I Make a Living Will?

This is one of the documents I include in the estate planning packages for my clients, if they so elect to have one. The first step, at least when working with GFLF on your estate plan, is filling out my Estate Plan Questionnaire, which is where you can choose “yes” or “no” for creating a living will.

In terms of qualifications, you must be a competent, legal adult who is age 18 or older. The declaration can be signed in the presence of two witnesses (who also must be 18 or older and should not be family members if at all possible) or a notary public. Note that health care employees responsible for your care cannot be the witnesses.

Of course, the declaration for a living will must be signed voluntarily and without coercion.

What do I do Once I Sign a Living Will?

The original living will must be given to your doctor in order for it to be acted upon. Therefore your health care designated agent should have access to the original if the time comes when it is need.

Under Iowa law, it is your responsibility (and therefore your health care proxy if you are unable or incapacitated) to provide your attending physician (the doctor who is primarily responsible for your care and treatment) with the declaration. This attending physician might not be your family doctor, but it’s smart to give a copy of the living will to your family doctor to have on file. In addition, the living will’s existence should be made known to members of your family.

What Happens if I Change my Mind About my Living Will?

A living will is revocable at any time. You may revoke the document easily by notifying your attending physician of your intent to do so. This communication of intent will then be recorded by your attending doctor as a part of your medical record. If this is the case I also recommend contacting your estate planning attorney and health care designated agent to communicate your change. Depending on what is written in your health care POA that document may need revisions or additions, which is something your estate planning attorney can facilitate.

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What About a Living Will Made in Another State?

This is a good question as each state has its own laws related to living wills and such decisions. A living will made in another state will be valid in Iowa to the extent that the declaration aligns with Iowa laws on the matter.

That being said, it’s best to have a current living will declared in the state you reside in and are most likely to receive care in. So, if you signed a living will while living in Colorado and then move to Iowa, it’s best to sign a new living will that is specific to Iowa’s laws. (Plus, moving across state lines is one of those big life changes that mean you should update your entire estate plan to be sure it’s valid under your new home state’s estate, property, and inheritance laws. So, you may as well update your living will while you’re at it!)

What Happens if I don’t Have a Living Will?

Without a living will stating your directives, others will be forced to decide if life-sustaining procedures will be used for you. (Typically this is a situation one does not want to place on their loved ones.) If you have a health care power of attorney, that representative will make the decisions regarding life sustaining treatments and procedures.

If you also don’t have a health care power of attorney in place, Iowa law states that the attending physicians and the first person available from the following list will make such health care decisions for you  in front of a witness:

  • A guardian, if applicable (Note that a court appointed guardian must obtain court approval before making this decision.)
  • Your spouse.
  • Your adult child (or a majority of your adult children who are available).
  • Your parent or parents.
  • Your adult sibling.

Communication is Key

Just like it’s important to discuss your estate planning decisions with your executor and family, it is equally important to discuss your health care and life-sustaining wishes with the person who will be your agent. You may also plainly state directives on your health care power of attorney form such as “I want all available organs to be donated in the event of my death.”

Review and Get Started

Whew. That was a lot of important information in one blog post. Let’s review how the two different but compatible documents of health care power of attorney and a living will:

  • Your health care power of atttorney gives a proxy your designate and trust the authority to make medical decisions for you if you are unable to make them for yourself.
  • The living will is a document specifically directing your physician that certain life-sustaining procedures should be withdrawn or withheld if you are in a terminal condition and unable to decide for yourself.

You can have a health care power of attorney document without having a living will. And, while not advised to not have a health care power of attorney document in place, you could technically have a living will without a health care power of attorney.

If you don’t have health care power of attorney or a living will in place, there’s no time like the present to make your decisions known and recorded well before the unexpected happens. Fill out my easy Estate Plan Questionnaire to get started. If you have any questions about either of these documents, don’t hesitate to contact me at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com or by phone at 515-371-6077.

US capitol building against a blue sky with flag

Changes to the tax code can and often do impact estate planning because one of the major goals for most is to reduce or eliminate the taxable amount of the estate. Passed at the tail end of 2017, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (otherwise referenced as the new tax law), is no different and there were some major changes that will no doubt impact estate plans moving forward. What did the Act change, what didn’t it affect, and what should you do to maximize your benefits?

Estate Exemption

congress building

One of the most significant changes under the new tax law are the estate-related exemption amounts. The estate tax exemption—or estate tax exclusion as it’s sometimes referred to—is the figure subtracted from an estate’s gross value for the purpose of calculating federal taxes.

This change is one that all estate planning individuals, especially those classified as middle- to high-net worth, need to be aware of. For tax years 2018 through 2025, the exemption from estate, gift, and generation-skipping taxes was raised from $5.49 million per individuals to an approximated $11.2 million. (The exemption base is indexed, so the base for the 2017 tax year was $5 million; for the 2018 tax year, the base is now $10 million and still indexed for inflation.) This means each individual should be able to shelter over $11 million before any estate, gift, and generation-skipping taxes apply.

If you’re married, this means your estate exemption for tax year 2018 now equals $22.4 million. (Or, you could think of it like each couple now has an additional $11.2 million in assets available to gift or make a testamentary transfer with.)

Important Considerations

Other estate planning related taxes

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None of the estate, gift, or generation-skipping taxes were repealed by the new tax law, and the tax rates for these remains at 40 percent. Just for review: the federal estate tax is applied to the transfer of property at death; the gift tax applies to transfers made while living; and, the generation-skipping transfer tax is applied to transfers of property that skip a generation.

However, these transfer taxes (sometimes referred to as excise taxes) will apply to fewer estates given the major increase to the exemption figures. (The Joint Committee on Taxation estimates the number of taxable estates will drop to 1,800 in 2018, compared with 5,000 estates under the previous tax law.)

Gift tax annual exclusion

Discussing gift tax can be confusing when you consider there is an annual exclusion amount and a lifetime gift tax exemption. Let’s clarify some important points, so you can feel great about gifting to your loved ones!

In the 2018 tax year, the annual gift tax exclusion will be $15,000. This is up from the $14,000 it’s been stuck at for the past half-decade. This annual gift tax exemption is inflation-based, but only raises in increments of $1,000, which is why it took the rate five years to increase.

This means you could gift up to $15,000 to an individual without cutting into the lifetime gift tax exemption. You can give gifts up to that value to multiple individuals. Meaning if you have three adult children and want to gift each of them $15,000 in the 2018 tax year, you could do so and it would be completely exempt from the gift tax. If you’re married (and your spouse consents) you can give a joint gift (otherwise referred to as a split gift) of up to $30,000 per individual in the 2018 tax year.

Let’s say you, as an individual, want to gift a grandchild $20,000. That $20,000 is $5,000 greater than the annual gift tax exclusions and that $5,000 would then be counted toward the lifetime exemption rate (the $11.2 million previously discussed).

Timing

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Because the new exemption rates are only instated (as of right now) through the 2025 tax year, on January 1, 2026 the exemption basis will revert back to where it was for the 2017 tax year—$5 million exemption per individual. (Of course, the actual figure will be larger because it will still be indexed for inflation.) Congress could choose to extend this exemption rate past 2025, but they could also choose not to. There could also be further changes to the tax law after future congressional and the presidential elections.

Basis adjustment

There was no change made to the step-up in basis rules. Meaning, when you pass, assets left to beneficiaries are reset to the fair market value at the date of your death. This is a benefit when it comes to taxes for both the whomever inherits the property and helps simplify taxes because there’s no guesswork as to what the property was worth when the testator (the person who made the estate plan) acquired it.

Actions to Take Today

If/when the exemption amounts are reduced, there will be no “clawback,” allowed, meaning that gifts and transfers made up until 2025 will not be later subjected to taxes. That means if the increased exemption rate could have an impact on your estate and allows you to make gifts increased in quantity or value, time is of the essence. Where to start?

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Research & consult on your options

There are a few different approaches to gift-giving that could be particularly fitting with the tax changes. Look into establishing and funding a new irrevocable trust or gifting to an existing one. Contemplate how gifts could be applied toward life insurance funding or present sales to trusts. For the charitable-minded individual, the higher exemption amount represents an opportunity for increased philanthropy—consider a tool like a charitable lead trust.

Discuss your options with the appropriate professionals such as your estate planning attorney, financial advisor, and accountant. They’ll be able to advise on tools and strategies you’ve researched, but also provide clear information and counsel of options you didn’t even know about. It’s your professional advisors’ jobs to present you with all the info (benefits and potential detriments) you need to know to make an informed executive decision regarding your estate.

Review estate plan

You should review your estate plan annually regardless of any legislative changes, but with the new tax law you’ll certainly want to review your will, any trust documents, estate planning goals, and overall tax strategies. Again, discuss your options with a qualified estate planner!

Contact me for a free consult

Let’s talk about what the new tax laws mean for you, your family, and your legacy. How can you leverage the increased exemption rate to make a difference in your community? How can you better prepare your heirs when you’re not around to support them and offer guidance? Contact me for a free consultation via email or by phone (515-371-6077).