Posts

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 Just to take two examples, an outdated estate plan can more easily be challenged in probate court.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!

doctor and patient

Back before COVID-19 made its way to Iowa I had an appointment at the University of Iowa Hospital. Don’t worry, it was nothing serious. Beyond the facility, technology, and the clearly talented health care providers, what impressed me most was the nurse asked if I had a health care power of attorney and/or living will and if I had them on file there. Of course, I got quite excited that the hospital is putting this important part of estate planning front and center as a part of the checkup where they take your vitals and such.

Now, with a pandemic front and center, this often overlooked step in estate planning is more salient than ever. In case you don’t have a helpful nurse to prompt you to take this important step, allow me to issue the reminder.

Once your estate plan is executed you should store it properly, as well as give a copy of certain documents to your doctor(s). Your doctor doesn’t need your entire estate plan on record, but they should have a copy of your health care power of attorney and health/medical-related documents, such as a living will. You should request these documents to be placed in your medical records.

What Do YOU Want?

A major benefit of this simple action is that if anything unexpected happens, your doctors and their teams will have your detailed wishes readily available. Giving a copy to your health care provider(s) is especially important in the case where you have been incapacitated (such as in a coma or under anesthesia) and want a specific person (like a spouse, adult child, or sibling) to be able to important decisions on your behalf. You want there to be no question as to whom you trust to make those decisions. You also want there to be no questions when it comes to personal choices regarding things like blood transfusions and being kept alive on machines.

Access to Medical Records

When the health care power of attorney goes into effect, your designated representative will also have access to your medical records (which would otherwise be undisclosed due to HIPAA rules). If your doctor has your power of attorney on file, there will be significantly less red tape to your representative accessing essential information.

Remember Revisions

If you make revisions to your estate plan documents, such as who your designated health care representative is or specifics included in your living will make sure you give the updated version to your doctor’s office. You don’t want them operating off of an old version if an emergency occurs.

Questions about estate planning? Think it may be time to update your health care power of attorney document? Don’t hesitate to contact me. Want to get started? A great place to start is with this free, no-obligation estate plan questionnaire.

doctor holding stethoscope

Take a break from whatever you’re doing for entertainment during these socially distant days to test your knowledge on how much you know about health care power of attorney—a particularly important estate planning document. Because I’ve never particularly enjoyed tests (who does?), I’ll give you a hint; all the answers can be found in this recent blog post:

To make things even easier, all of the statements below are either true or false.

1. An estate plan is a set of legal documents to prepare you (and your family and loved ones) for your death or disability.

2. There are six basic legal documents that nearly everyone should have as a part of an estate plan:

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

4. Once your health care PoA goes into effect (typically most people elect to have this be the case only if an attending physician certifies you are unable to make medical decisions independently), your agent will then be able to make decisions for you based on the information you provided in your health care PoA.

5. If there are no specifics in your health care PoA relating to a unique situation, your agent can and should make health care decisions for you based on your best interests.

6. The person you select as your health care agent should be someone in whom you have the utmost trust.

7. The agent you select will be able to access your medical records, communicate with your health care providers, and so on.

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

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

10. If you don’t have a health care PoA and you should become incapacitated to the degree where you are unable to make health care decisions for yourself, your doctor(s) will ask your family and loved ones what to do. Ultimately, if your immediate family members cannot agree on a course of action, they would have to go to an Iowa Court to resolve the matter.

11. Going to court about a person’s medical care is very complicated, time-consuming, and expensive. This is especially true when compared with the convenience of simply putting a health care PoA in place should the need arise.

12. A health care PoA gives you control over how decisions are made for you, and the agent you choose will carry out your wishes.

13. Everyone can have unique issues and concerns when estate planning. It’s completely up to YOU as to what’s contained in your health care PoA. You name the agent(s). You decide what medical decisions will be covered and how. It’s all up to you.

14. Executing a health care PoA is a smart and responsible thing to do.

All of these statements are true. That wasn’t too bad! How did you do?

Questions about how and why to execute a health care power of attorney document? Don’t hesitate to contact me. Want to get started? A great place to start is with this free, no-obligation estate plan questionnaire.

Attorney reading The Iowa Lawyer COVID-19

The Iowa State Bar Association recently published a special edition of The Iowa Lawyer, dedicated to legal situations and considerations related to the global pandemic of COVID-19.

Gordon Fischer Law Firm wrote two pieces for this volume. The first article provides tips for supporting nonprofits providing critical aid. The second piece covers best practices for estate planning during coronavirus and how getting even the basic documents in place can provide some peace of mind. The hope is that these pieces provide useful information for all Iowans, not just attorneys. Scroll to pages 15–18 on this PDF version of the publication to start reading!

Iowa Lawyer COVID-19 Cover April 2020

Also in the Iowa State Bar Association’s publication are some interesting stories on: managing anxiety and stress during this chaotic time; how to stay cybersecure while working from home; and what companies’ legal obligations are around the coronavirus, among many other worthwhile reads.

If you’re interested in reading GFLF’s previously published articles in past editions, click here to scan through the archives. Also, the articles got you thinking that it may be time to start on or revise your estate plan, check out GFLF’s free, no-obligation Estate Planning Questionnaire.

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.

creative sticker

To all of my estate planning clients, I stress the need for a complete estate plan. The set of documents includes more than a last will and testament. It also includes a health care power of attorney, disposition of personal property, and disposition of final remains, among others. But, each individual and their situation is unique and accordingly, an estate plan can and should be customizable. Beyond the baseline documents, some people elect to include a living will, while others choose to set-up a living trust. Furthermore, the specific content within the documents can range immensely when it comes to particular provisions, charitable bequests, and instructive wishes. You may even choose to get a bit “creative” with your estate plan, like the following famous examples of out-of-the-ordinary instructions.

Hairy Situation

Napoleon Bonaparte, the infamous French emperor and military leader, issued unique end-of-life directives that differed from his typical military orders. Just days before his death, Bonaparte inserted a clause stating that if he were assassinated by the “English oligarchy” that, “The English nation will not be slow in avenging me.” He also requested that his hair be divvied up among his family and stated:  “Marchand shall preserve my hair, and cause a bracelet to be made of it, with a little gold clasp, to be sent to Empress Maria Louisa, to my mother, and to each of my brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces, the Cardinal; and one of larger size for my son.”

Napoleon chair

Final Resting…Can

If you don’t want to make gifts out of your hair, you could request to be buried in a Pringles can like Fred Baur (who invented Pringles). Alternatively, you could be made into a series of limited-edition Frisbees and sell them like Ed Headrick (who, you guessed it, invented Frisbee and founder of the Disc Golf Association).

Family Find

Perhaps you want to issue a challenge in your estate plan like the late magazine mogul William Randolph Hearst. In Hearst’s estate plan, he challenged popular rumors, stating that anyone who could prove that they were an illegitimate child of his would inherit a $1. Spoiler alert: no one ever claimed it. (He also barred his five sons from running Hearst Corporation, which goes to show estate planning and business succession planning go hand in hand.)

one dollar bill

Better Letter

In a different kind of challenge, novelist and playwright George Bernard Shaw left money behind to fund the creation of a brand new alphabet, called the “Shaw Alphabet.” He left the conditions that the alphabet must have 40 letters, be phonetic, and totally different from the Latin alphabet. He also stipulated his desire for his script, Androcles and the Lion, to be printed in the winning alphabet.

Choose Your Own Adventure

This all goes to show the point of estate planning: YOU get to choose. Not the court and not family members who may be left confused as to what’s best or what you would have wanted. Your estate plan is where you get to choose what’s best for you, your loved ones, and your hard-earned assets.

I’d love to help draft the perfect individualized estate plan for you. One of the best ways to get started thinking about what you want is by filling out my free, no-strings Estate Plan Questionnaire. Or, you can contact me via email or phone.

Picture of tablet offering self isolating guidance for COVID-19

Many of us are facing uncertainty and tough times as COVID-19 has forced much of daily life to look different for the time being. Many are working from home for the first time; students are engaged in distance learning; and some of us are taking care of loved ones and friends.

GFLF appreciates and respects the health and safety precautions we should all take to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. While I greatly enjoy meeting with all of my clients, for the immediate future all of my services can still be provided—in full and without any change in quality—through phone calls, emails, and video conferencing. I’m also still offering free consultations and would love to chat about your estate planning, charitable giving, or nonprofit needs.

While I’m certainly not a health care professional, I want to help our heroes on the frontlines of this virus by sharing important information. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen some informative graphics and have included some of my favorites below. If you have important Iowa-specific information, especially related to charitable giving or nonprofit organizations, please don’t hesitate to share with me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or email.

Stop the Spread of Germs image

Hand Washing Image

how do I prepare for coronavirus and lists steps

What community spread means

Coronavirus Disease 2019

Coronavirus Disease Handwashing

Stop the Spread of COVID-19

cutting into a pie

Pi (π) is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. Pi is a constant number, meaning that for all circles of any size, Pi will be the same. (It’s also a great day to deliver pie to Gordon Fischer Law Firm…any kind will do!)

Like geometry, in estate planning there are many variables, and some constants, too. Ironically, one of the constants in estate planning is change. And as your life and circumstances changes, your estate plan needs to change too.

Change & Your Estate Plan

Let’s assume you’ve gone to an estate planning lawyer, and you have (at the very least) the six “must have” estate planning documents. That’s great, well done. (You can read all about these six documents here.).

But remember you also need to keep these documents updated and current.

Major Life Events

If you undergo a major life event, you may well want to (re)visit with your estate planning lawyer, to see if this life event requires changing your estate plan through different provisions, tools, and strategies.

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

  • The birth or adoption of a child or grandchild
  • Marriage or divorce
  • Illness or disability of a spouse or beneficiary
  • 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
  • Launch or closure of a business

This is just a short list of life events that should cause you to reconsider your estate plan; there are many others.

Changes in goals

It’s not just life changes, though. It may be that your overall goals for your estate plan have changed over time. You may want to change the amounts of inheritances. As your financial situation changes, you may want to increase or decrease, your charitable bequests.

Laws are dynamic and changing

And, it’s not just changes in your own life you need to think about, either. Congress, the Iowa legislature, and the courts are constantly changing the laws. When the rules change, so too must your estate plan.

Meet the Donor Family

To illustrate when estate plans should be updated, let’s look at the Donor Family. Jill and Dave have been married for 25 years and have four grown children. They executed a common-sense estate plan a few years ago.

Since that time, the Donors have gone through many changes, as you would expect, and as all families have. Should Jill and Dave update their estate plan to reflect changes in their family’s circumstance? Consider the following:

Divorce

One of the Donor kids filed for a divorce from his wife. Jim and Carol need to update their estate plan since they decided they now want to exclude the ex-spouse as a beneficiary.

Changes in financial status

Jill’s uncle passed away and left her a great deal of money. The Donors need to determine how this inheritance will affect their current plan and future estate tax liability. The Donors may want to be more generous to their favorite charities. They may want to talk to their estate planning lawyer about charitable giving through a planned gift, such as a charitable gift annuity or charitable remainder trust.

Birth

Our example couple’s youngest child recently announced that she and her spouse are expecting their first child. Jill and Dave must update their estate plan to provide for the new grandchild.

Major changes in health

The Donor’s youngest child was in a serious car accident, which resulted in severe disability. He can no longer work and is receiving government disability benefits. The Donors will want to seriously consider setting up a special needs trust. This type of trust will allow a beneficiary to receive inheritances, without it being considered income by the government for qualification purposes.

New real estate outside Iowa

Jill and Dave recently bought a vacation home in Arizona. The vacation home may well be affected by Arizona laws. In any case, the Donors’ estate plan should reflect this new asset.

vw bus in arizona

As you can see the Donor Family has many reasons to revisit their estate plan, and more than likely, so do you! In between bites of your favorite pie, review your current estate plan to make sure its current. (If you still need an estate plan, the best place to start is with my Estate Plan Questionnaire.) Additionally, I can always be found at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com and 515-371-6077.

Fancy estate planning pen on notebook

Estate planning documents express your wishes in the event of your disability or death. However, estate planning documents must follow certain formalities to be legally enforceable. If your estate planning documents lack these formalities, they may not be enforceable, which could be disastrous for your loved ones and beneficiaries.

Iowa Requirements

Keep in mind estate planning requirements vary state by state. Let’s look at a Last Will and Testament, just one of six “must have” estate planning documents every Iowan needs. For a will to be valid in Iowa, it must comply with these requirements:

  • Maker (testator) must be at least 18 years of age or married;
  • Maker must be of “sound mind”;
  • Will must be written;
  • Will must be signed by maker in presence of at least two competent witnesses, at least 16 years of age, who also sign in presence of maker and each other; and,
  • Maker must tell the witnesses it is his or her will.

Formalities Matter

It is important to have a reputable legal professional handle your estate planning. If you don’t, you risk missing one or more legal formalities, which might make your entire estate plan worthless. For this reason, avoid creating a will, or for that matter any estate planning documents, through an online service.

Starting an estate plan may seem like a daunting chore, but it doesn’t have to be. The easiest place to start is with my free, no-obligation Estate Plan Questionnaire. Of course, you may always reach out to me at any time with any questions or concerns.

Someone pointing into the sunset

Estate planning allows people to elect tools and strategies that makes life for their loved ones as uncomplicated as possible following death. Almost everyone I work with wants to ensure their family members are set up for success.

Dad holding daughter

One such estate planning tool to accomplish this is the handy dandy trust. There are almost limitless different types of trusts; trusts may be classified by their purpose, duration, creation method, or by the nature of the trust property. For instance, there is the fairly common “animal care” or “pet” trust. You can also place almost any asset imaginable in a trust.

For some parents looking to help a son or daughter (minor or adult) with special needs, a trust can be a powerful avenue to continuing to support the loved one. (In this trust situation the child would be the beneficiary of the trust, the parents would be the settlor, and a trustee would be assigned.) Why? In general, the idea is that a special needs trust can use estate assets to enrich and enhance the child’s life while maintaining the individual’s viability for enrollment in public benefits programs. Examples of assistance programs can include Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Medicaid, subsidized housing, and vocational rehabilitation, among others.

Specifics of Special Needs Trust

Smart estate planning for special needs ensures that the parts of the estate which pass on to the individual with special needs are NOT considered an “available asset” by the associated agencies that disperse essential benefits. Many people make the mistake of leaving assets to a loved one with a disability through a will. This is problematic because acquiring assets, such as a significant lump sum of money, can disqualify your loved one from certain government assistance programs. By setting up a special needs trust, instead of solely using a will, you can avoid these issues. How? Because the trustee has total control over the management of the funds, and the beneficiary does not, government program administrators, like the ones from SSI and Medicaid, don’t “count” the trust assets when considering eligibility.

Beyond protecting the beneficiary’s eligibility for public benefits a special needs trust can also:

  • offer assured lifelong money management for the child; and/or
  • establish a pool of available funds in the future event that public benefits should be restricted or revoked.

Careful Drafting Required

It’s important to remember that details of each special needs trust will vary depending on factors like the beneficiary’s age, competency, and familial situation. Also, because of the complexities involved, special needs trusts require extremely careful drafting. So, If you’re even considering establishing a special needs trust as a part of your estate plan, it’s definitely necessary to speak with an experienced estate planning professional to make sure all of the nuances of the trust are executed properly.

Don’t hesitate to contact me with questions via email (gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com) or on my cell phone at 515-371-6077.