Posts

hourglass in sand
Here on the GFLF blog we talk a lot about the transfer of property made at the time of death through estate planning tools like a will, disposition of personal property document, or a trust. Everyone needs an estate plan to most effectively and seamlessly transfer real property (think land and real estate) and personal property (think jewelry, art, all of your “stuff”) to the people and charities you care most about. These are all called testamentary gifts. (Think “last will and testament” if that makes it easy to remember.)
As you probably know all too well, you can also make gifts to other people during your lifetime. These are called inter vivos gifts if you want to be lawyerly with it. This one’s easier to think about because you’ve been giving gifts for holidays, birthdays, weddings, and anniversaries regularly. You can also make gifts while living of cash, real estate, land, stocks/bonds, and other non-cash assets to charitable organizations.
One specific type of inter vivos gift doubles down on the Latin–it’s called a gift causa mortis. This type of gift is made by the donor while they’re alive in the event of impending death. Causa mortis in Latin translates to “because of death.” Sometimes this type of gift is referred to as a deathbed gift. The most common kind of gifts causa mortis tend to be small, valuable and/or meaningful gifts like a wedding ring.
To make this more salient, consider the scenario where Abe was in a severe accident and is aware that he is going to pass soon. Abe turns to his son Bob, who rushed him to the ER, and tells him that he wants him to have his watch. He takes it and gives it to his son Bob and then gets rushed into surgery. This is a simple example of a gift causa mortis.
Now, with out amateur Latin lesson complete, let’s dive into the elements of the rules related to gifts causa mortis.
woman blowing on a dandelion

Elements of Gifts Causa Mortis

A valid inter vivos gift involves:

  1. intent by the donor facing imminent to donate;
  2. delivery of the gift; and
  3. acceptance by the donor.

Delivery of the Gift

The gift must be delivered to the recipient. That’s easy if it’s something handheld like jewelry that you’re wearing, but what about anything that the donor doesn’t have on them personally? So long as the “delivery” is sufficiently symbolic, that will suffice if physical delivery at the time of the gifts is impractical.

woman giving white rose

Another Hypothetical

Let’s say a donor wanted to make a gift causa mortis of an antique piece of furniture to their niece. At the time the donor was residing in a hospice facility and very clearly toward the very end of her terminal illness. It would be impractical for the law to expect the dying donor to physical deliver the furniture to her niece. As long as the donor gave the niece a symbolic representation of the gift, such as writing out the details of the furniture’s location and details in the presence of a witness, it would likely be found valid upon the donor’s passing.

Another example that applies arose out of a case where a donor’s delivery was found to be valid where she signed the back of her car’s certificate of title to gift the automobile to her brother.

Can I Get a Witness?

To avoid post-mortem litigation by other heirs-at-law or the decedent’s estate’s executor, it’s preferable if the delivery of the gift is witnessed by a third party who can attest to the validity of the gift. Additionally, if there is an option for a piece of writing to be made out detailing the gifts and signed in the presence of a third party, that’s even better.

Revocable  & Conditional

Gifts causa mortis are revocable, which means that the donor (the gift giver) can revoke the gift at any time (while still alive). This revocation can be completed unilaterally, with only the donor. This is different than an inter-vivos gift, which when completed, is completely irrevocable.
person giving wedding bands
Gifts causa mortis are also conditional on the donor’s death, meaning the gift giver actually has to perish before the donee’s ownership is valid.
Taking it back to our story with Abe and his son Bob: if Abe gave his watch to Bob before surgery with the imminent expectation of dying soon, but ended up living through the surgery, the gift is no longer valid and automatically revoked. Of course, Abe could choose to make an inter-vivos gift to Bob if he decided to do so.
Additionally, if the recipient dies before the donor, then the gift is revoked and the beneficiary’s estate has no claim to the property.

Imminent Death

tombstone close-up
For a valid gift causa mortis, the donor has to die imminently…what constitutes “imminent death?” This has been debated in different cases. What’s clear is the gift giver doesn’t have to die immediately, like seconds after the gift is given. But, the donor must pass away from the danger or condition that was present at the giving of the gift. Plus, it doesn’t “count” if the donor has a fear that they might die at some vague point in the future.
Intervening Recovery
Additionally, there must be no intervening recovery between the gift and death.
Back to our hypothetical: let’s say Abe goes into surgery and survives from the injuries relating to his accident. At this point the gift of the watch is invalid. Abe may unfortunately go on and pass away from a different condition a few months later, but the previous gift causa mortis of the watch is not suddenly valid just because Abe eventually died.

What’s the Difference Between Gifts Causa Mortis and Testamentary Gifts?

Typically gifts causa mortis are informally made in the moment, are not planned to the same extent or formally written out like testamentary gifts. In the majority of states, gifts causa mortis are immediately transferred to the recipient’s ownership after death, whereas gifts made through a will or testamentary trust transfer ownership after the probate process is complete. Additionally, gifts causa mortis can only be made of personal property, not real property like your house or farmland.

How do Gifts Causa Mortis Fit into Taxes?

Similar to testamentary gifts, gifts causa mortis are taxed under federal estate tax law. The policy behind this is because the gifts aren’t complete until the donor’s passing. (Note well that the federal estate tax also applies to general inter vivos gifts made within three years of death. This means the value of such gifts is included in the estate in order to calculate the estate taxes.) It’s also worth noting that the federal estate tax applies to so few people now after the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, so you don’t really to be concerned about this!
dying bouquet of flowers

Final Words on Gifts  Causa Mortis

Gifts Causa Mortis or not, there is no substitute for an airtight, updated estate plan. If you have such a plan in place, there’s no need to try and meet all the elements and intricacies of gifts causa mortis.

None of us know when our time will come, and we may not have the opportunity to give away our prized possessions via causa mortis right before death. But, we can know that estate plans never expire and can give you peace of mind that your property will be pass to the people you intend without legal contest (which can arise from gifts of causa mortis).

No questions are dumb questions when it comes to the complex world of property and estates. Don’t hesitate to contact GFLF or schedule a free consult to get your estate planning needs and goals in order.

keep estate plan up-to-date

At first, estate planning can seem a bit much. It can be hard to know where to start and what all you need to know. But once you enlist an experienced attorney to act as a guide through the process and go through executing your plan (making it official), you can breath easy. The great news? Once you have your estate plan in place, it never expires. But, it’s not enough just to have an estate plan—you need to keep it current so it reflects changes in your life, as well as changes in applicable laws. Just to take two examples, an outdated estate plan can more easily be challenged in probate court. or create tensions among family members, than one that reflects your current situation.

Ensuring your estate plan is up-to-date is especially important when major changes occur in your life. Here are a few of them:

  • Your marital status changes through marriage or divorce.
  • You might not want a former spouse to inherit any of your assets, but it could happen if your estate plan is not properly revised.
  • You have kids (or more grandkids) as this could change your distribution model.
  • Make sure that your children are represented by a trustworthy guardian in case something happens to you. You will also want to add any additional children as beneficiaries.
  • Your financial situation significantly changes.
  • Your estate plan and its distributions will need to be revised to take into consideration any changes in your income. Did you inherit money or valuable assets? Is your career is suddenly flourishing? Maybe you experienced something that’s called “a liquidity event”—that is, you’re flush with cash from winning the lottery or selling a successful business. Don’t let your good fortune evaporate by ignoring your estate plan.
  • A beneficiary or legal representative dies or becomes unable to fulfill his or her duties.
    • Keep the list of the beneficiaries, guardians, trustees, executors, and agents named in your estate current.
  • You relocate to a different state (or country) or you acquire property in another state.
    • Laws governing wills and probate vary from state to state. So, if you buy property in another state and/or set-up a secondary residence, this needs to be reflected in your estate plan. Are you a snowbird who heads to your house in southern Texas every cold Iowa winter? Make sure the Lone State property is in your estate plan. It can be a huge hassle if your will doesn’t address all of your real estate, not to mention expensive.

I advise clients to review their estate plans every year. If there are any updates or questions it’s recommended that folks meet with their lawyer and other professional advisors. Some clients like to do this around the first of the year, while others prefer picking a date that’s easy to remember, like a birthday or anniversary. Any date will work— the important thing is to do it. Don’t be late, keep your estate plan up-to-date!

September calendar

Recently my social media feeds were alight with friends and family member’s grinning kiddos holding signs announcing their first day of a new grade. It made me nostalgic! While I wouldn’t want to repeat law school all over again, I do think it’s never too late to head back to the classroom—proverbial or real. So, the GFLF is heading back to school with lessons in English (like legal words/phrases of the day), reading (GoFisch book club) history, finance and the like. Today’s lesson on planned giving crosses over between business and economics, and it’s super important for donors of all gift amounts and nonprofit pros alike.

Back to school

What is planned giving?

Planned giving is the process of charitably donating planned gifts. A planned gift is a charitable donation that is arranged in the present and allocated at a future date. A planned gift is often, but not always, donated through a will or trust. (I would say this is true 80-90% of the time; put another way, planned gifts are bequests 80-90% of the time). As such, planned gifts are very often granted after the donor’s death.

Besides charitable gifts made through wills and trusts after death, other planned gifts include charitable gift annuities; charitable remainder trusts (along with the entire alphabet soup of CRATS; CRUTS; NIMCRUTS; FLIPCRUTS; etc.); charitable lead trusts, and remainder interest/life estates in real property. All these gifting tools/techniques/vehicles I’ve discussed previously, sometimes numerous times.

What is a Nonprofit?

  • You give $20 to a person you meet on the street who lost his bus ticket home.
  • At your local gas station, there is a collection jar for a local child with leukemia. You donate your change.
  • You leave money in your will for your niece Jane, hoping she uses it to continue her collegiate studies in engineering.
  • You have a neighbor who suffers from dementia. You and your friends decide to have an informal walk to raise awareness about the disease and raise money for your neighbor’s health care needs.

While noble, these are not examples of “charitable giving,” as we use the term here. In this context, we are talking about charitable giving to an organization formed under 501c3 of the Internal Revenue Service Tax Code. A 501c3 agency can be known by several terms in general usage, including “nonprofit organization” and “public charity.” For simplicity’s sake, we’ll use the term nonprofit throughout.

Nonprofits cover an extremely broad swath of types of organizations, including schools, churches, hospitals, museums, social services organizations, animal welfare groups, and community foundations.

Nonprofits Must Embrace Planned Gifts

Sometimes nonprofits are overwhelmed at the thought of expansive planned giving because of the number and complexity of some of the planned giving vehicles. How does this match up when you want to donate a less obvious gift than cash, such as stocks and bonds or grain? Nonprofits need to expand their ability to accept gifts of many varieties for at least three reasons:

Craft Beer Factor

The first reason I call the “craft beer factor.” (Bear with me here for a moment). I’m old enough to remember when there were just two kinds of beer. Don’t believe me? You should, as it was immortalized in one of the most famous advertising campaigns of all time–“tastes great, less filling!” This ad campaign strongly implied there were really just two types of beers.

craft beer on table

Then came the craft beer movement. I’m not sure whether craft beers were a response to consumers, or whether craft beers created a demand; presumably both. In any case, now a place like Toppling Goliath Brewing Company in Decorah, Iowa, has about thirty varieties of beers (this is based on an informal count from their website).

Now any retail establishment which sells beer must offer lots and lots of different kinds of beer. Any retail establishment which isn’t able to offer its customers wide variety risks irrelevance, or worse.

This is true not just of beer, but of everything. Another quick example– McDonald’s has around 145 menu items, that’s up from about 85 items in 2007. Also, McDonald’s now offers breakfast items not just in the morning, but all day-long.

Consumers want what they want, when they want, how they want.

Donors expect and often demand the opportunity to use many different options to assist their favorite charities. No longer can nonprofits simply ask folks to pony up cash, or just accept credit cards. Donors want to be able to converse with their fave charity and discuss using their whole portfolio. Nonprofits need to be able to accept, and intelligently discuss, gifting of many different types of non-cash assets.

A nonprofit which doesn’t offer its supporters a wide variety of giving options risks irrelevance, or even worse fates! So, as a donor, if you’re interested in donating an asset that your favorite nonprofit doesn’t typically facilitate, connect them with an experienced nonprofit attorney to make the gift a reality.

Planned Gifts Consist Overwhelmingly of Bequests

Second, planned giving is still mostly about wills and trusts. As already stated, I estimate 80-90% of planned gifts are bequests. Simple! Nonprofits should put substantial efforts to encouraging increased, larger testamentary bequests. Donors who already have an estate plan, but didn’t realize they could designate their favorite organizations as beneficiaries should contact an estate planning attorney.

Everyone can Understand Planned Giving!

Be it strategies for a monthly giving program or facilitating complex planned giving vehicles like NIMCRUTs, the opportunities for continuous learning about different planned giving technique are seemingly endless! And, there are so many different options, that all donors should feel great about supporting their fave causes with tax-wise gifts that work best for them. I strive to offer free information that breaks down different aspects of planned giving in human terms, as well as promoting community opportunities/events for nonprofit professionals.

heart on blue wood

Still need help understanding planned giving or any particular tool or technique? Want assistance coordinating a complex gift? Reach out to me anytime. I offer a free one-hour consultation to anyone and everyone. You can contact at my email (gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com) or on my cell (515-371-6077). I’d truly love to hear from you.

man writing on trust paper

If you’re unsure of what a trust is and how it works, you probably don’t have one. And, if you don’t have a trust, you’re not alone. About 57 percent of U.S. adults don’t have an estate planning document like a will or a trust even though they believe having one is important.

What Is a Trust? How Does It Work?

If you haven’t stopped to consider how a trust might help ensure that your wishes are followed and your assets are handled, you could be making a critical estate planning mistake.

A trust is simply a legal agreement among three parties—settlortrustee, and beneficiary—that provides instructions on how and when to pass assets to the trust’s beneficiaries. Let’s look at the role of each of these three parties, and then delve into how trusts work.

Settlor

A settlor—sometimes called the “donor, “grantor,” or “trustor”—is the person who creates the trust and has the legal authority to transfer assets into it.  

Trustee

The trustee is the person who agrees to accept, manage, and protect the assets delivered by the settlor. The trustee has a fiduciary duty to administer the assets according to the trust’s instructions and distribute the trust income and principal according to the rules outlined in the trust document and in the best interests of the beneficiary.

A trustee can be one, two, or more people. A trustee can also be what is known as a “corporate trustee,” such as a financial institution (like a bank) or a law firm that performs trustee duties and charge fees for their services. There are no formal requirements for being a trustee and nonprofessionals frequently serve as a trustee for family members and friends.

Beneficiary

The beneficiary is the person or entity benefiting from the trust. The beneficiary can be one person or entity or multiple parties. Also, trust beneficiaries don’t even have to exist at the time the trust is created (such as in the case of a future grandchild or charitable foundation that has not yet been established).

Trust Property

A trust can be either funded or unfunded. “Funded” mean that the settlor’s assets—sometimes called the “principal” or the “corpus”—have been placed into the trust. A trust is unfunded until the assets are in it (failing to fund a trust is a common estate planning mistake). 

Trust Assets

Trusts can hold just about any kind of asset: real estate, intangible property (like patents), business interests, and personal property. Common trust properties include farms, buildings, vacation homes, stocks, bonds, savings and checking accounts, collections, personal possessions, and vehicles.

“Imaginary Container”

Think of a trust as an “imaginary container” that holds and protects your assets. After the trust is funded, the trust property will still be in the same place before the trust was created—your land where it always was, your artwork on the wall, your money in the bank, your comic book collection in the den. The only difference is the asset will have a different owner: “The Jane Jones Trust,” rather than Jane Jones.

Transfer of Ownership

Putting property in a trust transfers it from personal ownership to the trustee, who holds the property for the beneficiary. The trustee has what is called “legal title” to the trust property and, in most instances, the law treats trust property as if it were now owned by the trustee. Each trust has its own taxpayer identification number, just like an individual.

But trustees are not the full owners of trust property. Trustees have a legal duty to use trust property as directed in the trust agreement and as allowed by law. The beneficiaries retain what is known as “equitable title”—the right to benefit from trust property as specified in the trust.

Assets to Beneficiary

The settlor provides terms in a trust agreement directing how the fund’s assets are to be distributed to a beneficiary. The settlor can provide for the distribution of funds in any way that is not against the law or against public policy. The near-limitless flexibility of trusts is a primary advantage for setting one up.

Types of trusts

A joke among estate planners says that the only limit to trusts is the imagination of the lawyers involved.  It’s true, though, that the number and kind of trusts are virtually unlimited.

Let’s start by taking a look at the four primary categories of trusts:

Inter vivos and Testamentary Trusts

Trusts that are set up during the settlor’s lifetime are called “inter vivos” trusts. Those that arise upon the death of the settlor, generally by operation of a will, are called “testamentary” trusts. There are advantages and disadvantages to both types of trusts, and how one decides depends upon the goals and purposes of the settlor.

Revocable and Irrevocable Trusts

Inter vivos and testamentary trusts can be broken down into two more categories: revocable trusts and irrevocable trusts. A revocable trust can be changed at any time during the settlor’s lifetime. Second thoughts about a provision in the trust or about who should be a beneficiary might prompt modification of the trust’s terms. The settlor can alter parts of the trust or revoke the entire thing.

Irrevocable Trust

An irrevocable trust is a type of trust that can’t be changed by the settlor after the agreement has been signed and the trust has been formed and funded. The terms of an irrevocable trust can’t be modified, amended, or terminated without the permission of the settlor’s beneficiary or beneficiaries.

A revocable living trust becomes irrevocable when the settlor dies because he or she is no longer available to make changes to it. But a revocable trust can be designed to break into separate irrevocable trusts at the time of the grantor’s death for the benefit of children or other beneficiaries.

You might wonder, “Why make a trust irrevocable? Wouldn’t you want to maintain the ability to change your mind about the trust or its terms?”

Not necessarily.

Irrevocable trusts, such as irrevocable life insurance trusts, are commonly used to remove assets from a person’s estate and thus avoid them being taxed. Transferring assets into an irrevocable trust gives those assets to the trustee and the trust beneficiaries forever. If a person no longer owns the assets, they don’t comprise or contribute to the value of his or her estate and so they aren’t subject to estate taxes upon death.

Revocable living trusts

There is no “one size fits all” trust—different kinds of trusts offer different benefits (and drawbacks) depending on a person’s circumstances. Age, number of children, health, and relative wealth are just a few of the factors to be considered. The most common trust my clients use is a revocable living trust, sometimes referred to by its abbreviation, “RLT.”

A revocable living trust—created while you’re alive and that can be revoked or amended by you—has three advantages over other kinds of trusts:

 1. Money-Saving

Establishing a revocable living trust helps avoid costly probate—the legal process required to determine that a will is valid. Probate generally eats up about two percent (2%) of an estate, which can add up to a chunk of change you’d probably rather see go to your beneficiaries.

Avoiding probate also means avoiding other fees, such as court costs, that go along with it.

2. Time-Saving

A revocable living trust not only eliminates the costs of probate, but the time-consuming process of probate as well. Here in Iowa, probate can take several months to a year, or sometimes even longer, leaving beneficiaries without their inheritances until the very end of the probate process. The transfer of assets in a trust is much faster.

3. Flexibility

Don’t want your 16-year-old niece to inherit a half-million dollars in one big lump sum? I agree it’s probably not a good idea.

A revocable living trust offers flexibility for the payout of an inheritance because you set the ground rules for when and how distributions are made. For example, you might decide your beneficiaries can receive certain distributions at specific ages (21, 25, 30, etc.), or for reaching certain milestones, such as marriage, the birth of a child, or graduation from college.

last will and testament

Drawbacks

Despite the significant advantages of establishing a revocable living trust, there are drawbacks people should be aware of

For starters, trusts are more expensive to prepare than basic estate plan documents such as wills. However, the costs associated with sitting down with a lawyer and carefully putting in place a trust is, in my opinion, greatly outweighed by the money your estate will save in the end.

Creating a trust can also be an administrative bother at the start of the process because assets (farm, business, stock funds, etc.) must be retitled in the name of the trust. But, all things considered, this is a small inconvenience that is greatly outweighed by the smooth operation of a trust when you pass away.

You Can Trust me to Talk About the Best Trust(s) for You

Interested in learning more about trusts or questioning if you need one? Feel free to reach out at any time by email, gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com, or on my cell, 515-371-6077. If you want to simply get started on an estate plan (everyone needs at least the basic documents in place!) check out my estate plan questionnaire, provided to you free, without any obligation.

letter of instruction

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

What Exactly is a Letter of Instruction?

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

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

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

Regular Updates & Safe Storage

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

But First, an Estate Plan!

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

cash and checkbook

When estate planning you’re answering many of the unknowns for the future by deciding to whom you want your stuff—your cash assets, real estate, personal property, physical body, to name just a few—to pass to and when. You also have to consider some tough topics about your own mortality and imagine a future for your loved ones that doesn’t involve you in it. Estate planning also has a little bit of a learning curve—figuring out what strategies and documents you may need to help you meet your tax, financial, charitable giving, and estate goals and why. (Just one of the many reasons a qualified estate planner is a must.)

The one thing that shouldn’t be a mystery or an unknown cost is the cost of an estate plan. If you’re going to invest in a quality set of legal documents that never expire, tailored to your personal situation and intentions, you should know what you’re getting yourself into. Click the image below to see a cost breakdown by packageRate Sheet Checklist

That’s why Gordon Fischer Law Firm is always transparent with estate planning package rates. You can find them at the end of my Estate Plan Questionnaire (the first of many important documents a part of your plan) and you can also find them on this (super shareable!) estate plan package rate sheet.

Don’t have an estate plan? Don’t let any questions about costs hold you back. Get in touch with Gordon at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com or by phone at (515) 371-6077.

hands typing on computer

A cutting edge issue in traditional estate planning is cryptocurrency. “Cryptocurrency” (as defined by Investopedia) is “a digital or virtual currency that uses cryptography for security. A cryptocurrency is difficult to counterfeit because of this security feature. A defining feature of a cryptocurrency, and arguably its most endearing allure, is its organic nature; it is not issued by any central authority, rendering it theoretically immune to government interference or manipulation.”

The most common, and for now the unofficial standard for cryptocurrency (AKA altcoin) is Bitcoin. But the market is getting increasingly more crowded with others including Ripple, Dash, Litecoin, and Zcash to name just a few. (For the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on Bitcoin, but these points could be applied to cryptocurrencies in general.)

Many posts could be written about cryptocurrency, its benefits, and its challenges, but this post is focused on how to account for Bitcoin in your estate plan, as opposed to a standard currency, like the U.S. Dollar.

Acknowledge the IRS’ Perspective

The IRS has determined, at least for the time being, virtual currency is treated as personal property for federal tax purposes. So, virtual currency transactions are most definitely not the same as, say, online banking through your local community credit union. Instead, for general tax purposes, Bitcoin is treated like tangible property you own, like a painting or a car.

Establish the Existence of Bitcoin

Unlike a checking or saving account. there are no beneficiary designations on Bitcoin accounts. In fact, quite the opposite — Bitcoin is anonymous. Therefore, if you were to die without communicating that you have Bitcoin, it will die with you.

For security reasons, of course, you won’t want everyone to know about your ownership of Bitcoin. But you do need to develop a method for passing along the important details to a trusted representative such as your named trustee or executor. This is somewhat similar to accounting for digital assets in your estate plan and many of the same steps/tips apply.

Bitcoin falls into somewhat of a “grey” area outside the realm of a pure digital asset, but it also isn’t a pure financial asset. It might make sense to entrust the existence of Bitcoin to the person you assign to take care of your digital assets, especially if they have a better knowledge base of the what/why/how of cryptocurrency.

Make sure the Bitcoin is Accessible

Unlike a traditional bank account, your executor/trustee can’t just simply contact Bitcoin (as they would your community credit union or bank)  after your death. Your agent must have your private key (or username/password depending on the wallet host) in order to access and then distribute the coin as you’ve determined in your estate plan. Again, if you’re the only person who has access to your “wallet,” the Bitcoin will be forever lost in the network. If you’re comfortable with it, you could include your Bitcoin private key on a secure digital archive site like Everplans or, more traditionally, you could keep the key in a safety deposit box.

Plan for the Prudent Investor Act

Many states, including Iowa, have a version of the Prudent Investor Act. (The text of Iowa’s law can be found under the Iowa Uniform Prudent Investor Act.) Under the Act, if you die with a large reserve of Bitcoin, it could be considered an “investment” which the trusted agent could be required to sell and/or diversify. In the face of uncertainty, it’s always better to account for contingencies in your estate plan before your loved ones are faced with a bad scenario. If one of the goals of your estate plan is to grant your executor/trustee the ability to hold your Bitcoin long-term, then it’s wise to include specific language in your will or trust absolving the executor/trustee from liability if they “fail” to diversity your Bitcoin.

Think About Taxes

If your executor/trustee retains your Bitcoin it would not be considered income (at least at the time of this post’s writing). However, if Bitcoin is converted to cash following your passing, it must be declared as income on an estate tax return. Additionally, if your executor were to retain Bitcoin, see it appreciate in value, and then sell it, there is the issue of the capital gains tax. (“The IRS requires American resident taxpayers to report Bitcoin trading income and losses worldwide on U.S. resident tax returns.”) Consider this in your directive of how you would like your Bitcoin to be managed in event of your death.

Fair Market Value: Step Up or Down

The fact that Bitcoin is currently considered personal property means evaluating for either a step-up or step-down in basis given the fair market value on the date of death. (I write more on this in regards to four different types of assets here.)

Let’s consider the hypothetical where Betty inherits 100 Bitcoins (BTC) from Amy. At the time of Amy’s death 1 BTC is worth $50 and when Betty goes to spend 1 BTC, it’s worth $60. That means Betty’s taxable gain on the use of the Bitcoin is $10. How much Amy initially paid for the 100 BTC is irrelevant. Again, the only relevant factor is the fair market value on the date of Amy’s death. It’s wise, as part of your estate planning, to consider your Bitcoin’s depreciation or appreciation to determine how this may affect your heirs. It’s even wiser to discuss your individual situation with professional tax and financial advisors, as well as your estate planning attorney.

Estate Planning is a Must, not an Option

It’s likely we’re going to only see more unique situations, such as that which cryptocurrency presents, in the future. While the future value of Bitcoin may be uncertain, for certain you need an estate plan, and you shouldn’t let your investment die with you. If you already have an estate plan, it’s probably a good time to revisit it to ensure it accounts for assets like Bitcoin. Email me or give me a call (515-371-6077) with questions or to discuss your digital estate planning needs.

Gordon Fischer at desk with client

I’ve previously written about the six “must have” documents of everyone’s estate plan. These documents include some key people that are essential. But, the terms for some of these roles can be confusing. Let’s review the main ones today.

Who/What is a Beneficiary?

Let’s talk first about beneficiaries. This is a basic term you’ve probably heard before or seen while filling out documents. Your beneficiary is the person to whom you leave your belongings, assets, money, land, etc. Of course you can leave your stuff to more than one person, in which case there would be multiple beneficiaries. With multiple beneficiaries, you’ll have to clearly designate who gets what. This can be done in a number of ways; for example, percentages of total value of the estate, or it can be done with specifics.

An example of percentages:  “I want Beth to inherit 20% of my estate.”

An example of a specific bequest:  “I want my son John to inherit the country house and I want my daughter Suzie Q to inherit the lake house.”

You don’t have to be related to your beneficiaries, and you’re under no obligation to leave anything to family members whom you wish not to receive your assets (no matter how hard that may be or how guilty you might feel). You could elect to leave part or your entire estate to charities. It truly is your choice as to who should benefit under your estate plan.

There’s a lot more to say about beneficiaries, but for now, just remember to make sure all documents are up-to-date. Keeping your estate plan up-to-date ensures you avoid nightmares like your ex-husband from years ago cashing in on your retirement funds.

How about an Executor?

Let’s talk about the executor of the will. An executor is the person who is in charge of your estate plan. They make sure the will is carried out as it is written. It’s not an awful job, but it is an awful lot of responsibility. Most folks, having never had to deal with the execution of a will, might not know how arduous it can actually be. Additionally, your executor might be close to you and grieving your passing while trying to make sure everything is taken care of properly. It can be stressful, to say the least.

When picking an executor, you want to make sure it’s someone you trust. Obvious, right? But, it’s so much more than that. We all have people in our lives we love and trust on a personal level, but we know they’re not responsible with things like finances and details. Those people would not a good executor choice, generally speaking. Look for someone in your life who is detail-oriented and can handle the part-time job of dispensing an estate.

If there’s no such person in your life, or even if there is and you simply don’t want to burden them with the task, there’s another great option: corporate executors or trustees–which can be found at a bank or a credit union. The corporate executor offers the bonus of being completely neutral in all things, which can be helpful if you have sticky family dynamics that might make life difficult for the executor. The corporate executor does come at a cost, which is usually based on the size of the estate. I tend to think you get what you pay for, and this could be an excellent option to consider.

If you do go with an executor you know personally, you’ll want to sit down and talk with them about it. You want them to know that you’ve assigned them the task and why you chose them specifically. And, if you’re choosing one child out of many, you’ll want everyone to be on the same page so there’s no unexpected turbulence after you’re gone.

How about Legal Guardians?

Legal guardians are the folks who will take care of your minor children should something happen to you before they reach the age of 18. Like your executor, this job requires a lot of trust in the person you choose.

Clearly, this is not a job that ends after the estate is closed. Who you decide to choose should be a matter of closeness of relationship (as in bond, not necessarily family ties), mutual values, and ability to handle the responsibility. Have an in-depth conversation with the person or people you choose. You want to confirm that you’re comfortable with their parenting style, make sure they feel they’re up to the job, and let them know why you chose them.

Important Trait in Common: Trust

What’s the key theme in all of these roles from beneficiaries to executors to legal guardians? Trust. The level of trust you have in the people who are involved in and benefit from your estate plan should be strong to be successful. If you ever have any questions about selecting the key players in your estate plan, don’t hesitate to reach out.

Your Estate Plan Should be Unique to You

There it is in a nutshell. Those are the basics of the key people in your estate plan.

Whether your estate plan is simple or complicated, it does require some thought and time, but it’s worth the investment. A proper estate plan can save you and your estate costs, taxes, 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.

No Day Like Today

Why not start right now with my Estate Planning Questionnaire? It’s provided to you free, without any obligation.

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

april fool's day balloons

Hopefully, you didn’t get pranked too bad today or misled by a jokester on social media today. But, if you did, happy April Fool’s Day! We all love a good practical joke now and then, but the subject of estate planning is definitely not one to laugh at. If you already have an estate plan in place, that’s fantastic, but don’t let an old or inadequate estate plan make a fool out of your life, property, and legacy.

Review Your Estate Plan

Let this lighthearted April Fool’s day actually serve as a reminder to review your current documents and determine if you need to consider updated language, additional provisions, or a different strategy (like “upgrading” from a basic will to a trust). When revisiting your estate plan consider these common mistakes I see when reviewing folks’ less-than-optimal documents.

Living Trusts Missing Retirement Plan Lingo

Many people have a valid portion of the estate assets investing in retirements plans like IRAs and 401(k)s. The mistake comes when people designate their revocable living trust as the beneficiary of these plans, but the trust hasn’t been written or updated to grant the trustee the power to manage the accounts placed in the trust. Without vesting this power in the successor trustee (presuming the testator was the initial trustee and then passed away), the trustee can lack the ability to properly deal with the plan assets and unfavorable income tax consequences can occur.

Uncertain if your revocable living trust properly contains the requisite retirement plan lingo? Simply check with an experienced estate planning attorney and invest in amending.

Outdated Living Wills

Also known as an “advanced medical directive,” your living will should contain the appropriate Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (more commonly referred to as HIPAA) language. (HIPAA involves privacy and who can and cannot have access to your medical records.) If your living will was drafted pre-2001 (before Congress passed new rules governing the Act) it likely doesn’t contain the essential references to HIPPA. I’ve even seen some living wills written well after 2001 that didn’t have the proper provision. It may sound silly, but without this “magic” wording, your designated health care representative won’t have access to your medical records. Without this access, they may not be able to fulfill their duty in making the most informed decisions regarding your health care as possible. This mistake can be especially important if you’ve designated someone other than a close relative (such as a spouse or adult child) as your agent.

Underfunded Living Trusts

Another mistake I’ve seen is living revocable trusts that are not fully funded. Undoubtedly, without the guidance of a quality estate planner, the funding process can feel overwhelming. When people procrastinate or run into roadblocks when placing assets into their trust they can get frustrated and fail to complete the process. This is a misstep with negative consequences because without funding the trust, it’s best thought of as an empty container waiting for a testator’s assets to fill it up. Without it, if the person with the underfunded trust passes away, the estate will still need to pass through the sluggish and costly probate process. And, quite frankly, the investment in the trust will have been for little benefit or advantage.

Let your estate planner help you through this process. Also, consider if you have any new major assets that need to be assigned to the trust.

All jokes aside, every Iowan deserves a high quality and functional estate plan that meets their goals. Don’t be a fool and let more time go by before reviewing your plan! Please contact me with any questions; I offer a free one-hour consult.

Selection Sunday 2017

1. If you understand #SelectionSunday, and #MarchMadness, you can most certainly understand estate planning.

When I meet people who say they’re confused about estate planning I love to see their faces when I tell them understanding the basics of wills, trusts, and even business succession planning may sound intimidating, but the basics are as simple as understanding NCAA March Madness. Seriously! Many folks know what teams are on the bubble, which teams were playing well at end of the season and which weren’t, what the most likely upsets are, and so on.NCAA Basketballs

Just like all those details are a part of #SelectionSunday and #NCAAMarchMadness, there are multiple inputs that go into a quality estate plan. For starters, there are your personal goals, the six main estate planning documents, and then personal considerations for, say, children, a family with special needs, pets, and charitable bequests. Feel free to read into these estate plan elements (like you would check out the stats of your favorite teams!) in between sweating out your bracket. And, speaking of your bracket…

2. If you have time to fill out a March Madness bracket (and you do), you also have time to fill out an Estate Plan Questionnaire.

Most everyone I know fills out a March Madness bracket in a (mostly) friendly competition with family, friends, co-workers, or sometimes all three. If you have time to fill out a bracket, why not also put serious thought into securing your future with estate planning? No, I’m not trying to guilt you. It’s just, again, it’s not that hard! You can find my Estate Plan Questionnaire here. It’s a great place to start.

 3. Weird stuff happens.

We all know that a huge part of the fun of NCAA March Madness is the upsets. The super thrilling and/or gut-wrenching endings that shouldn’t have happened, but somehow did. It’s a reminder that life, for better or worse, is quite unpredictable. Why not make sure that plans are in place in case something unexpected happens?

Want some more sports to legal analogies in your life? Check out this read on preparing your favorite nonprofit for top-notch compliance.

Regardless of who you’re slating to win it all, I would love to hear from you; let’s schedule an initial free one-hour consultation (at no obligation, of course). Email me at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com or give me a call at 515-371-6077.