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books on a table

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

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

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

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

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

movie camera

I was scrolling through Netflix the other night and finally landed on The Aviator, which I haven’t seen in a while. The 2004 Scorsese film starring Leonardo DiCaprio tells the story of the eccentric aviation magnate and movie producer, Howard Hughes, who tragically battled OCD, paranoia, and chronic pain (from a near-death plane crash) and spent his later life as a hermit. That led me down a rabbit hole of internet research into the real Howard Hughes. As an estate planner, I naturally wondered what happened to his estate when he passed away in 1976. (Perhaps fittingly the aviator passed away in an airplane.)

Even if You’re Not a Billionaire, You Need an Estate Plan

Unfortunately, the tale of the Hughes estate is a cautionary one of what NOT to do.

Hughes—who was reputed to be one of the wealthiest men in the world—died intestate, meaning he died without a valid will. That can cause chaos, confusion, and cost ample time and money for regular folks. But, when your estate is worth billions like Hughes’ was, it causes a mass tangle of court proceedings. In the case of the Hughes estate, debate and disputes lasted a total of 34 years.

In the aftermath of his death, several documents were brought forth alleging to be the magnate’s will. All were deemed to be forgeries. A Nevada court determined Hughes died intestate, meaning the law determines how assets are distributed to heirs-at-law. However, Hughes died divorced (allegedly) and without any close relatives; he left no clear heir(s). This debacle of no will meant that many people came out of the woodwork claiming to be relatives.

A Messy Web of Forgeries, Fraud, & Litigation

So, after years of attorneys, courts, and dubious claims, what actually transpired?

Eventually, $2.5 billion was split between 22 of Hughes legal cousins in 1983. (Undoubtedly he didn’t know some or even the majority of these people. It’s also been said he didn’t want his money to go to his distant relatives, but without an estate plan, his wishes were steamrolled by probate law.) In an interesting twist, a woman named Terry Moore came forth claiming she married Hughes on a boat in international in 1949 and that they were never divorced. She didn’t produce any proof of the marriage (like a marriage certificate), but the estate paid her a $400,000.

The Supreme Court even had to step in. They ruled in the messy dispersion of assets that the Howard Hughes Medical Institute owned Hughes Aircraft, which it then sold off in 1985 to General Motors for more than $5 billion. The Court also rejected lawsuits brought by Texas and California, claiming they were owed inheritance taxes, but the suits were eventually put to rest with settlements of $50 million and $150 million respectively in property and/or cash.

In 2010, more than three decades after Hughes passed, the last slice of Hughes pie (Summerlin residential development community near Las Vegas) was liquidated.

Leave a Valuable Legacy

Undoubtedly, Hughes left his mark on 20th century American history. However, his legacy could have been cemented in the way he wanted (probably giving the bulk of his estate to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and nothing to long lost cousins) if he would have had a proper estate plan created completed with valuable strategic tools like different trusts and charitable giving vehicles. While most of us will never have an estate valued even close to the likes of Hughes, we can be smart with what we do have and make certain what we choose is dispersed to whom we choose, when we choose. There’s no need for your assets to be tied up in red tape or be dispersed in a way that’s not fitting with your wishes.

Contact me with your estate planning questions, or get started with my free, no-obligation Estate Plan Questionnaire, which will help you organize important information needed for the plan in one place.

Here’s the worst-case scenario: You’ve passed away and your family falls, expectedly or unexpectedly, into a tumultuous state. They all have different opinions on how your estate plan should be interpreted, and one or more beneficiaries want to contest the distributions. While everyone knows it’s all about the money, there are easily enough legal “hooks” on which to hang a lawsuit: it can be contested that there has been undue influence, document forgery, breach of fiduciary duty, or that the deceased testator was not of sound mind.

woman and man talking about litigation

Litigation over an estate plan is terrible for everyone involved. For the sake of your family’s well-being work now to avoid this problem in the future—I really cannot express this enough.

Three Best Ways to Avoid Litigation

  1. Have a plan. Having an estate plan that is carefully planned and well thought out, created by an experienced estate planner, and completed well in advance of any death or disability is the single best way to avoid litigation.
  2. Talk about it. It’s critically important to discuss your final wishes with your loved ones and beneficiaries. Clear the air now. Don’t leave it up for future interpretation.
  3. Include a clause that discourages litigation. An experienced estate planner can include a provision in your estate plan to shut out a beneficiary if s/he brings litigation. (This is also important why you need an actual lawyer to help craft your estate plan.)

I would love to discuss your individual estate planning needs; contact me via email at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com or give me a call at 515-371-6077. Want to get started on your estate plan? My free, no-obligation estate plan questionnaire is a good place to start.

typing on computer

How many times during the day, without even thinking about it, do you use a digital account? Twenty? Fifty? More? Think about it, within the space of just a few minutes you’ll login to your work email, post to your Facebook account, upload files to Dropbox, and check your credit card statement from your banking app. There’s no doubt digital accounts are a regular part of the hum of daily life. A huge amount of your personal and financial information is not only held online, it’s held entirely online, and nowhere else.

hands typing on computer

Just as dying without a will can cause grave stress and even anguish to your loved ones, dying without passing along information and instructions on your digital accounts can cause major headaches. Considering that you may well have dozens or even a hundred different digital accounts, this represents a huge challenge to your executor.

Defined broadly as any multimedia, website login, online account, hardware, and/or software — your digital assets can quickly accumulate and represent a vast amount of information, both personal and professional. (Digital assets encompasses tools for both personal or professional use).

Anything from your Facebook business page to your Paypal account is counted as a digital asset. When you pass away, these accounts will (presumably) need to be accessed by your executor. Which is weird, when you think about it, considering all the time we spend on anti-virus software, reporting spam, and avoiding hacks of our online selves. These accounts will need to be used totaling up all your assets and finalizing your affairs. Your online bank or credit union records will be used for the former. Shutting down your social media profiles will be part of the latter. In any case, an executor needs access.

The law and the online world have had a rocky relationship thus far. There are so many competing principles, including privacy, ownership interests, ability of companies to freely contract with customers, and a probate code that in many ways is more attuned to the 1800s than the 2000s. These clashing concepts means we only now are beginning to codify solutions to the online world issues and problems.

For example, how should the law handle terms-of-service agreements, after one party to the agreement has died? You remember that little box you check every time you update your computer or get a new account. All that small print includes terms-of-service agreements to which you agreed. These agreements, in addition to state and federal privacy laws, forbid unauthorized access to digital accounts.

Person holding phone at table

Enter the 2015 Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act. (Try saying that five times fast!) This statute’s title is legal speak for, “Here’s what you do with someone’s digital accounts like email and social profiles and financial institution accounts after they die.” It provides (relatively clear) rules so an executor can effectively manage a decedent’s digital accounts without violating any laws (like the terms-of-service agreements).

Iowa is one of the majority of states which enacted the Digital Assets Act, but only recently. Governor Branstad signed Senate File 333, the Iowa Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act, on April 20, 2017.

The Digital Assets Act gives you the power to plan for the management and disposition of your digital assets in similar ways to your planning for disposition of tangible property. In case of conflicting instructions, the Digital Assets Act provides a three-tiered system of priorities:

Tier One

Just like a beneficiary on an account trumps what’s written in a will, if a service provider like Google offers a mechanism for the account holder to outline their wishes post-mortem, then that tool is used as the primary instruction. Note that other tools, like Twitter, have a specific policy involving steps like submission of a death certificate by an authorized representative. But, if a digital service offers you the option to set what happens upon your passing—who should be notified or has access to the account—use it.

person on social media

Tier Two

If an online account doesn’t offer any sort of contingency plan, then put directions for digital assets in your will, and in your powers of attorney, and in trust agreements, if applicable. If nothing’s specified with the service provider, then directions in an estate plan are the next, best clear intention. Don’t rely on general definitions of the executor’s powers, or what “assets” mean, to wrongly assume these cover your digital assets. A written statement(s) ideally gives your executor equal access to what you had during life. Considering you could have dozens or even hundreds of online accounts, include an overarching, general statement that includes any account owned by the decedent. Consider using specific instructions for intentions on particular accounts.

You should include these instructions in your estate planning documents even if you’ve designated an account executor with the service provider . . .  it doubles down on your wishes.

Tier Three

If digital assets aren’t accounted for by a service provider tool or in an estate plan, then the determination of how the assets may be dealt with falls to the dreaded service agreement. Such agreements typically prohibit anyone accessing the account aside from the owner.

finance on phone with laptop in background

Easy Steps to Take

Beyond knowing these three tiers of the Digital Assets Act, there are a few (relatively) easy steps you can take to ensure your digital assets are both accessible and accounted for:

  1. Consider a password manager like LastPass. With this tool there’s one password to login and then the executor could see all the sites you use regularly. In a way it’s like a net worth statement of investments . . . but for accounts.
  2. In addition to a password manager, write down an inventory of your accounts and log-in information; keep it secure and updated. Of course, don’t put this login info in your estate plan documents. Give clear instructions to your trusted family member or friend as to where to find this document.
  3. You’ll want to consider what you want your executor to be able to access. Do you want them to be able to read all your private emails and private message chats? If not, you may specify limited access.
  4. This goes without saying, but think long and hard about precisely who you want to have access to your online accounts. Someone may be qualified to be your Financial Power of Attorney agent, but entirely unqualified to handle your digital accounts. You’ll need to consider both trustworthiness and tech savvy and tech aptitude in your decision.

Don’t Just Tweet About It, Talk About It

If you don’t have an estate plan yet, the best place is to start with my Estate Plan Questionnaire. It’s free and provided at no obligation.

If it’s time to update your estate plan to include digital assets, I would love to discuss your situation. Reach out at any time by email at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com, or on my cell at, 515-371-6077.

Gordon Fischer Iowa City At Desk-Estate Plan

Estate planning.

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, well, yes, it forces one to think about one’s own mortality. 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.

Estate plan: you almost surely need one

Almost everyone needs some kind of 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 (rare) cases, I strongly recommend making sure your beneficiary designations are completed and up to date (for example, on your bank/credit union savings accounts and retirement benefit plan). But, if you are 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!

Baby in arms of dad

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 most everyone’s  estate plan. Plus, you should keep them updated and current. Also, don’t forget about assets with your beneficiary designations. For most Iowans, that’s good – six documents, keeping them current, and also remembering about those assets with beneficiary designations.

Sure, estate planning is complicated, but not that complicated. I’ll show you.

Six “must have” documents of your estate plan

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 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 Plan Questionnaire

Estate planning involves facing heavy questions, and depending on the amount 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 an easy way to get all of your information in one place, and it should help you understand and prioritize estate planning goals. (I must also admit a questionnaire 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.

Last Will and Testament

Now let’s get to the will. 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 three major questions:

  1. 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.)
  1. 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.
  1. Who do you want to take care of your kids? If you have minor children (i.e., kids under age 18), you’ll want to designate a legal guardian(s) who will take care of your children until they are adults.

Power of Attorney for Health Care

Assorted pills

A power of attorney for health care designates someone to handle your health care decisions for you if you become unable to make those decisions for yourself. This essentially gives another person the power to make decisions on your behalf. For example, if you don’t want to be kept alive with machines, you can clearly outline that in your power of attorney for health care. But keep in mind that power of attorney for health care isn’t just about end-of-life decisions – it can cover any medical situation.

Power of Attorney for Finances

The power of attorney for financial matters is similar, 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 say 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 you trust.

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 Suzie to have a specific piece of jewelry, and your nephew Karl to have that bookshelf he loved, then you’d say so in this document.

Disposition of Final Remains

We come to the disposition of final remains. This document is where you get to tell your loved ones exactly how you want your body to be treated after you pass away. If you want a marching band and fireworks shooting your ashes into the sky (that’s a thing, by the way), then this is where you make it known. It can be as general as simply saying “I want to be cremated,” or it can be specific and include details of plots you’ve already purchased or arrangements you’ve already made.

Keep updated and current

OK, so you’ve gone to an estate planning lawyer, and these six “must have” 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 such events would 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

This is just a short list of life events that should cause you to re consider your estate plan. There are many others.

Don’t forget about your beneficiary designations

There are six “must have” estate planning documents, plus you need to keep them current. Also, don’t forget about your beneficiary designations. For example, 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 appropriate institution

What other documents might you need resides these six “must have” estate planning documents?

For most Iowans, probably the vast majority, what I’ve outlined above is enough. There may be folks who have more that $5 million in assets, 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. But that will be more “advanced” estate planning. What I’ve described above is an excellent start.

See? That wasn’t so bad!

Glasses on estate planning documents

There it is in a nutshell. This is what goes into an estate plan.

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.

Perhaps most importantly, through proper estate planning, you can help your favorite charities in ways large and small. Really, without estate planning, it’s not possible, at your death, to help nonprofits you care about.

Begin today

Why not start right now on your own plan for the future with my free estate plan questionnaire? It’s provided to you free, without any obligation. I would love to discuss your estate plan with you; reach out at any time by email, gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com, or cell phone, 515-371-6077.

Estate planning together

You need an estate plan. You need an estate plan.

If I haven’t yet fully convinced you that you need an estate plan, consider many other reputable sources. Following the brutal infighting over his estate, Prince would probably tell you to make an estate plan. So would these other celebrities who died without a planFox Business emphasizes the critical importance of an estate plan, adding, “[y]ou don’t have to be rich to plan for your death.” U.S. News & World Report notes both the financial and emotional pain inflicted on loved ones when folks fail to plan. Fidelity cautions that too often estate planning is a neglected, but important, part of overall financial planning. Forbes reminds us that, “Plain and simple, estate planning helps protect your family in the event that something bad happens to you.”

So, an estate plan is clearly critically important, but where to start? Keep reading for an easy five-step guide to get you where you need to go.

Estate Plan, Not Just a Will

Before I discuss the five easy steps, let’s get our terminology straight. Remember a will is NOT the same as an estate plan. While these two terms are (mistakenly) used interchangeably all the time, they are quite different.

An estate plan consists of several legal documents to prepare for your death or disability. Your will is just one of those documents, albeit a very important one. You need more than a will; you need an estate plan. With that settled, let’s discuss the five-step process of how I can craft your very own, individualized estate plan.

Honesty and Transparency

I work with my clients from a place of complete honesty and transparency. I’m upfront and open about my process of developing clients’ estate plans.

I’m always sure to inform potential clients of my five-step process:

  1. You download and fill out my free estate plan questionnaire.
  2. We meet for a free one-hour consultation and discuss your completed estate plan questionnaire.
  3. Based on the information you provided me, and our discussion, I draw up drafts of your estate planning documents.
  4. Once you are sure the estate planning documents are perfect, we sign the documents.
  5. About once a year we revisit your estate plan to ensure it’s aligned with your life changes.

That’s it. That’s really all there is to it.

estate planning in 5 steps

STEP ONE: Estate Plan Questionnaire

A great place for you to start is by filling out my free estate plan questionnaire. It’s completely free, with no obligation.

You can print off my estate plan questionnaire and either fill it out by hand, or type in your information digitally. If filling it out on a computer, tablet, or smartphone, remember to “save” often and regularly. The estate plan questionnaire collects essential information needed to craft a quality estate plan. This information includes contact information about your family and your professional advisors, assets, family, and specific property items.

Cost of an Estate Plan

Dollar

People thinking about completing an estate plan are often, quite understandably, concerned about its cost. No matter who you hire to draft or update your estate plan, make sure they’re completely up front with you about what it will cost. My own fees couldn’t be more obvious, as seen here from this rate sheet.

Looking at the different options, you may be confused as to which estate plan package is right for you. “Do you need a revocable living trust? Or would a simple will package be enough?” To which I say, relax. We’ll figure it out together.

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

This is why filling out my estate plan questionnaire is such a great first step. You can gather your own individual important and relevant information, all in one place, and think through decisions you’ll need to make when building your estate plan. Then, I can see from your responses what you might want and need. Once your estate plan questionnaire is complete, we’ll meet for a free one-hour consultation.

STEP TWO:  Free, One-Hour Consultation

Gordon Fischer meeting with client

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

STEP THREE: First Drafts of Estate Plan Documents

Glasses on estate planning documents

Once you and I agree about what documents and what terms in those documents should be included in your estate plan, I get to work. I draft a set of documents, unique to you and your needs. Once completed, I share this first draft with you.

How I share the draft with you depends entirely on your preference, which I ask about in the estate plan questionnaire. Most folks are good with email. Some clients don’t have email, or don’t want these sorts documents sent through email. In such cases I would either snail mail the documents, or have the client could pick them up at my office.

However you receive the documents, you’ll spend time reviewing the first draft of your estate plan. You’ll make changes, ask questions, and raise concerns. This is all on your time frame. You take as much, or as little time, as you feel you need. I will move at the speed you want. We can go through one draft or we can go through twenty. The important thing is we won’t continue to the next step until you are completely satisfied with your estate plan in all aspects. Only when you are completely, totally, and 100 percent satisfied do we execute the documents.

STEP FOUR: Executing Your Estate Plan

We’ll set up an appointment to meet (again, usually my office, but could be another place you choose). We’ll need two witnesses. I’m a notary. We’ll go through and properly sign and notarize all the documents.

Only Then, My Bill

I talked about the cost of an estate plan, but I haven’t yet mentioned a bill. That’s because I don’t present you with a bill until the end of the process. Only once you have a fully executed (i.e., signed, notarized, and witnessed) estate plan, then and only then do I provide you my bill for legal services. The bill total will exactly match the figure I provided you earlier, during our free consultation. If it doesn’t match, frankly, you could simply not pay the bill. (I might keep the estate planning documents, though). Some clients write a check right on the spot. Other clients want to pay along with all their other bills, so they remit payment later. Yes, you may take the estate plan documents without paying—I trust you’ll pay me.

Yes, YOU Get the Original Documents

Some lawyers keep the original, signed documents. I don’t. I give you the original documents to keep safely. I can make copies (electronic, paper, or both) for you if you’d like. I do keep both a paper and electronic copy of the signed version of your estate plan. Copies of estate plans are great, just in case, but it’s the original that counts.

Short Client Satisfaction Survey

I may send you an online client satisfaction survey via email. The survey is super short, optional, confidential, and anonymous. The questions center on your satisfaction with me, the process, and the product. The survey allows you to voice your opinion on working with me and helps me improve and maintain a high-quality level of service.

STEP FIVE: Annual Follow-Up

The only constant in life? Change. As your life inevitably changes, your estate plan must adapt.

How often should you revisit your estate plan? I like to check in with my clients on an annual basis.

Some clients like revisiting their estate plan at the start of the year. Others prefer to review on a significant date, like a birthday or wedding anniversary. Some pick a random date we agree upon. The “default” date would be the annual anniversary of executing the estate planning documents.

Woman holding Calendar

At our decided-upon date, I’ll just do a quick check-in; typically, this is just a quick series of short emails. Only if there’s been a major life event, death of an heir or fiduciary; drastic change in health; significant change in assets; or the like, will we need to have a longer discussion. Of course, you don’t have to change anything you don’t want. I’ll simply provide advice.

You know you need an estate plan, and as you can see above, this five-step process isn’t so bad! So, cast those excuses aside and get started on checking off step one of your checklist.

If you have any questions or concerns about estate planning in your situation, please contact me any time. I can always be reached via email, gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com, or my cell phone, 515-371-6077.

Gordon Fischer at desk with client

“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” —Shakespeare, Henry VI

This line is oft-quoted to suggest the Bard felt contempt for lawyers. But, it’s notable that Will, one of the most acclaimed writers of the English language, hired a lawyer (Francis Collins of Warwick) to craft a very detailed will.

DIY Will?

Still, a common question I get all the time is, “Can I write my own will? Do I really need an attorney?” It’s a fair question.

In this age, you can watch a YouTube video, read a DIY blog post, or ask your network on Twitter, to fix or build or make almost anything. There’s limitless information, which makes it feel like you can bypass the “pros” for a cheaper, simpler fix. So, yes, you can write your own will or use an internet service like LegalZoom.

The question, though, isn’t whether you can write your own will, with some research surely you can. The question is instead: should you write your own will? And, if so, will it be valid and hold up in court?

To this point, hypothetically, with lots of study, you could perform oral surgery on yourself, but should you do so and will it turn out well?

Economic Self-Interest?

Before I provide nine reasons you should hire a lawyer to draft your estate plan, let’s deal head on with the idea that my conclusion is based on my own economic self-interest. “Of course you want people to hire an estate planning lawyer, because you are one!”

But, I’m not saying you should hire a lawyer only if that lawyer is me, Gordon Fischer of Gordon Fischer Law Firm…although, if you’re interested, we can certainly schedule a free consultation with no obligation. Rather, I’m just saying you should hire a competent lawyer well-versed in estate planning and probate law. There are many fine Iowa attorneys. This is not about me and my money, this is about you and your money.

The plain truth is you need a lawyer to help you with your estate planning. Here are nine reasons why.

Reason #1: You need more than just a will

Always remember, and never forget, you don’t just need a will, you need an estate plan. While the two terms “will” and “estate plan” are often used interchangeably, this is wrong, as they are two different things. An estate plan is a set of legal documents to prepare for your death or disability. A will is just one of those legal documents, albeit an important one.

In fact, there are at least six “must have” estate planning documents you need. So, you don’t need to draft just one legal document and get it right, but several.

Reason #2: Save time and energy

Handing off the complex task of drafting a thorough estate plan to a responsible professional will alleviate an immense burden on you. It’s simply a lot of work to write an estate plan.

Reason #3: Save money

stacked up coins

Without an estate plan, you and your estate may end up paying more in the long run in professional fees, court costs, and taxes. Using  a flat rate with an attorney will be much more straightforward and to your long-term economic advantage.

Reason #4: Save more money

An experienced attorney knows where to look and what questions to ask to help you secure additional tax and financial benefits.

Reason #5: It’s complicated

I’ve mentioned this before, but this stuff is hard. It’s part art and part science. Every phrase, every word, can undo an estate plan.

Plus, the law is dynamically changing all the time. The federal government, Iowa government, agencies like the IRS, and courts at every level are changing the rules of the game constantly. It’s almost a full-time job keeping track of the current play of the rules, let alone learning the rules to begin.

Reason #6: One Shot

After you shuffle off this mortal coil, how many chances do you get to get your estate plan right? One! There is no second chance. Don’t get me wrong, you can always invest in a new estate plan if you realize your DIY attempt at an estate plan stinks. But, you shouldn’t have to if you get it right the first time! And, if something happens to you before you have the chance to make said second estate plan you’re out of luck. It’s done.

Plus, your estate plan will probably need updates and revisions following any big life or applicable legislative changes that you’ll want an attorney to help you address. (See reason #8 for more on this.)

Reason #7: Objectivity

Along with expertise, lawyers offer objectivity. By working with a lawyer, you’re going to bring that extra voice of reason to bear on current and future estate planning needs. Is it a good idea to leave your entire estate to your dog Buster? Is your 18-year-old kid truly mature enough to handle your IRA worth a million dollars? A lawyer can give you direct, unvarnished, and unbiased advice.

Reason #8: The only constant in your life is change.

As your life changes, your estate plan must adapt. Perhaps you move to a new state. Maybe you have a kid and then some more kids. The kids grow up and have kids of their own. Throughout, perhaps you marry or divorce. Your financial situation significantly changes. All these life events, and many more, necessitate changes to your estate plan. You need a lawyer to tell you when your estate plan needs a tune-up and to perform the tune-up.

Reason #9: Lawyers themselves!

lawyer probate

It’s funny to think about, but nonetheless true. After you die, who will determine if your estate planning documents are valid? Lawyers! State judges (who will, of course, be attorneys) are going to review your estate plan documents. These judges will determine whether your documents meet the necessary requirements. You don’t want to leave it up to a judge, trained as a lawyer, to try to figure out if your DIY documents are valid under the Iowa Probate Code.

Closing Argument

Have I convinced you? Or do you still want to go it alone?

Feel free to contact me any time to discuss further why you need a lawyer to draft an estate plan. I offer a one-hour free consultation, without any obligation. I can be reached any time at my email, gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com, or on my cell, 515-371-6077.

pitcher holding baseballs

The Red Sox (AKA the “other” Sox team, not my beloved White Sox) took home the World Series title after a 5-1 win in Game 5 against the LA Dodgers. This is the team’s ninth World Series win and its fourth in the past 15 seasons! Some sports commentators are hailing the Bostonian sluggers as one of Major League Baseball’s greatest teams ever. Whether or not you cheer for the Red Sox, one thing is certain there are some winning estate planning takeaways from the great American game that will help you cement your legacy as strongly as the Sox.

set of 3 baseballs

Disposition of Final Remains – Plan a Parade

Boston is now prepping to host the championship parade, which reminds me that in your “disposition of final remains” document you can specify precisely in great or little detail what you want done to celebrate your successes. If you want your designated representative in the disposition of your final remains to plan a parade to march through town, you can do that! Confetti cannons, marching band, (duckboats if you live in Boston)… the whole shebang. But, would that ever actually happen you ask? That’s where choosing a trusted and steadfast rep for disposition of final remains document comes in. Your will’s executor and other representatives owe you and your estate a fiduciary duty to fulfill the execution of the plan as you indicated. So, you’ll want to select people who are up to the task if a parade is in the cards!

Disposition of Person Property- Pass Your Treasures to Whom YOU Choose

The World Series made recall a story from a few years back about a family feud over autographed baseballs that got pretty nasty. Larry Pogofsky, one of the original White Sox investors, passed away in 2010 leaving behind a baseball collection of hundreds, that included autographs by the greats like Babe Ruth, Lou Gherig, and Micky Mantle, among others.

One son, Brad, said that his father repeatedly orally told him that the baseballs were to be inherited after Larry’s death. However, there was no express mention of the autographed baseballs in Larry’s estate plan. Larry passed all of his possessions to his wife (the boys’ mother) who stated: “My husband made it very clear what he wanted to happen to his collection of baseballs. He wanted his collection to remain intact and he wanted to give it to his son Benjamin.” Benjamin and Brad fought for the baseballs through a series of civil and even criminal charges (including a restraining order keeping Brad from Ben and Ben’s dog) filed against one another.

The Pogofsky story serves as a cautionary warning of what can happen when you don’t clearly discuss your estate plan and intentions with family members and other beneficiaries. Further, what Larry could and should have done was specify to whom the baseball collection was to pass to in his disposition of personal property document. This clearly would have expressed his intent, instead of transferring all of his assets to his wife who he presumed would pass the collection on as he wanted, without interference from his sons. He could have even split the collection up among his sons if he so chose.

world series baseball

The disposition of personal property document (like the disposition of final remains) is one of the six key documents a part of most folks’ estate plans. This document is where you get specific about items you want particular people to have. For instance, let’s say you have a special piece of artwork you would like to pass to your niece, then you would say so in this document. It would make sense to name your specific niece in the document, rather than passing everything to, say, your spouse or kids and just hope they follow your oral wishes to pass along the specific property to whom you intended.

Understand Sports? Then You Can Understand Estate Planning!

If sports make sense to you, then you can understand the important aspects of estate planning. Give these posts relating to football, basketball, and the Olympics a read.

Questions? Want to get started on making certain your assets pass to whom you want, when you want, and how you want? Download and follow my free Estate Plan Questionnaire and/or contact me for a free consult!

calendar book with pen

So many things in life come with built-in expiration dates. Some, such eggs, milk, and cheese, are clearly stamped, while other common items (everything from spices, fire extinguishers, lipstick, to hard liquor) lose their quality or effectiveness over time, but don’t have a clear “best used by” date on them.

So, how about an estate plan? If your running shoes can expire, how about important legal documents? This is a common and certainly valid question.

As bill-paying Americans, it seems par-for-the-course that like everything else, we need to routinely file paperwork, with payment(s), to keep coverage in place. Fortunately, estate planning documents do not expire. Once valid, such legal documents are effective for, well, for as long as you want. This includes all documents that could (and probably should) be in your estate plan, such as a will, health care power of attorney, financial power of attorney, instructions for disposition of personal property, and instructions for final disposition of remains.

You will never receive a notice in the mail that your carefully crafted estate plan is set to expire in 30 days if you don’t submit another signed form or check payment. However, I highly recommend revisiting your estate plan annually to make certain life changes over the past year are appropriately reflected. For example, having a child, getting married or divorced, moving to another state, changes in financial circumstances, and other major life events necessitate revisiting your estate plan. After all, estate planning documents can be changed up until the moment you pass away.

Since these legal documents do not expire, there’s no better time than now to get started on your estate plan. The best place to start? Download my Estate Plan Questionnaire; it’s free and provided at no obligation!

I would love to discuss your estate plan with you. Reach out at any time by email, gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com, or cell phone, 515-371-6077.

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.