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flower-pink-mothers-day

To all the moms out there (including my own!), happy Mother’s Day! We all have our own unique relationships and therefore unique lists with an endless number of things we can and should thank our moms for. But the one thing we all have in common is there are not enough words and never the perfect gifts that fully encompass how thankful we are for all they’ve given us. Bath salts, candles, and lotions are nice. A massage or pedicure sounds even better! These gifts are kind, but they pale in comparison to all the tangible and intangible things you mother has given you over the years.

Mother's Day GFLF

That’s why I propose this year you give your mom a gift that’s unconventional, yet incredibly valuable..an estate plan! Why is this one of the greatest gifts for a loved one?

  • An estate plan leads to peace of mind. Your mom can feel good knowing if the unexpected happens, then the legal “stuff” surrounding your life is accounted for.
  • Estate planning means that you (the testator) get to make the decisions about who you want to have what stuff and when.
  • Estate planning isn’t just about death. Documents like financial and health care powers of attorney play an important role if your mom were to be incapacitated by an debilitating accident or illness. Everyone wants the ability to choose the people they want to make important decisions regarding their money and health instead of a court appointed guardian or conservator.
  • Estate planning means your mom can plan for her estate to benefit the causes and organizations she cares for through charitable bequests.
  • Estate planning saves your mother’s family (like you!) time and money in attorney’s fee and court costs in the probate process.
  • By encouraging your mom to estate plan, you recognizing that you want her wishes to be heard on important matters like disposition of final remains and a living will. (It makes up for all the times you didn’t follow her directions as a kid!)
  • Estate plans can also be seen as a representation of your everlasting love for your mother, because estate plans never expire! They need to be reviewed regularly and updated when goals or big life changing events happen, but a valid estate plan will last as long as your mom wants it to. What other Mother’s Day gifts can you say that about?

How do you gift someone an estate plan you ask? Well, you certainly can’t buy one at a store, but this is your chance to get creative.

  • Gift the gift of information. Even sharing the benefits and educating her on the main components of an estate plan is an amazing present.
  • Connect her with an estate planning attorney. Sometimes the hardest part of estate planning is simply getting started. When you work with an estate planning attorney (in lieu of something with a high potential for negative unintended consequences like a DIY will off the internet), they help guide and consult you through the process on top of writing the actual documents.
  • Give a storage container. This is a gift you could actually put a bow on! There are many different ways you can choose to store your estate plan, so take stock of what your mother has in terms of secure storage. Is there a locked file cabinet readily available or does she need a water-proof, fire-proof place to keep her original estate plan? The storage container could be a sort of representative for the estate plan that is to come.
  • Help her gather her information to fill out the Estate Plan Questionnaire. An Estate Plan Questionnaire helps you and your attorney collect all the important details related to your estate in one place.
  • Gift your assistance. Let your mom know that when she’s ready to discuss her planning decisions that you’ll be there to listen, and if necessary, bring your siblings (if any) and other family members to the table so that everyone is on the same page.

Already got your mom a gift? That’s cool. I’m sure she would love it in addition to the estate plan!

Questions, concerns, or otherwise from you or your mother? Contact me at any time via email or phone (515-371-6077).

heart lock on bridge

You’ve been perpetually reminded by commercials, Facebook ads, and the candy aisle at the store that everyone’s favorite pink, red, and chocolate-dipped holiday is coming up quick. In this #PlanningForLove series through February 14, I’m featuring different aspects of how estate planning oddly but perfectly fits in with a day all about love. For this post, I’m going to focus on married couples because, despite the commercialization and overpriced flowers, Valentine’s Day seems as good as time as any to celebrate your spouse!

Let’s face it, it’s a miracle any of us find a soul mate, a best friend, a partner in crime…whatever you call them…that not only tolerates all your weirdness on the daily, but also still loves you “for richer or poorer” and “through sickness and in health.” I can think of no better way to honor that kind of long-term commitment than to take the appropriate estate planning steps with your sweetheart in mind. I realize it may not be the most romantic gesture, but it’s WAY more valuable than stale chocolates or a heart-holding teddy bear. And, like your love, there is no expiration date on an estate plan.

For richer or poorer makes a lot of sense when put in the context that someday you are going to pass away and you probably want to pass your assets to your spouse (and heirs at law) while also minimizing the burdens. If you die without a will it will cost your beloved a lot of time and money, on top of anxiety and even heartache.

In sickness and health also directly relates to one of the main estate planning documents. For instance, say you were in an accident and were severely incapacitated. You would want to have your health care power of attorney established and kept updated (many spouses choose one another as the designated representative), so that important medical decisions could be made by someone you trust to do what’s in your best interest.  The same goes for a financial power of attorney. There are many aspects of your separate finances you may want to designate to your spouse so they could settle or manage specific assets in the case that something happened to you.

Beyond the numerous benefits that come with the six main estate planning documents that all Iowans need (yes, all Iowans, young and old; rich and not wealthy!), what are the other considerations of spouses should have in regard to estate planning?

couple in love with writing on wall

What’s Mine is Yours: Common Law Property

The majority of states, including Iowa, are called “common law property” states. (As opposed to the alternative—community property states—which applies to eight states.) “Common law” is a term often used in the law and can have a wide variety of meanings depending on the context.

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

If your spouse were to pass away in a common law state, his or her separate property is distributed according to his or her will, or according to intestacy laws without a will. The distribution of marital property depends on how the spouse’s share ownership—the type of ownership.

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

‘Til Death do us Part: Forced Share Law

If married, technically your spouse cannot disinherit you. An Iowa statute allows spouses to take a “forced share” against the will. In short, the surviving spouse has a choice; the spouse can inherit any property bequeathed to him/her under the will, OR the spouse can take a forced share. So, even if a will leaves nothing for the surviving spouse, the surviving spouse can take a forced share against the will.

Under Iowa law (specifically, Iowa Code § 633.238), a surviving spouse that elects against the will is entitled to:

  • One-third of the decedent’s real property;
  • All exempt personal property that the decedent held; and,
  • One-third other personal property of the decedent that is not necessary for payment of debts and other charges.

In other words, a surviving spouse can choose (elect) after your death to basically ignore your will or trust that doesn’t provide for said surviving spouse, and take approximately one-third of your estate.

For example, if you left your entire estate to your children and not your spouse, your spouse can say, “You know, I don’t like this at all. I’ll take one-third of my dead spouse’s estate. Thank you!” And, pretty much just like that, boom, the surviving spouse can do so.

Preferred Portability: Unlimited Marital Deduction

The unlimited marital deduction is a money-saving must for married couples. The unlimited marital deduction is an essential estate preservation tool because it means an unrestricted amount of assets can be transferred (at any time, including at death) from one spouse to the other spouse, free from taxes (including the estate tax and gift tax). Note that the marital deduction is available only to surviving spouses who are U.S. citizens. If your spouse is not a U.S. citizen, look at other tools, such as a qualified domestic trust (QDOT), which may act to minimize or eliminate taxes.

Property Passage

If you acquired property (like a house or other significant asset) before getting married, take a look at re-titling property (such as a home) from sole ownership to joint tenancy. This means that if one spouse were to pass, the other would get the property without it passing through probate. (Depending on your situation, you could also consider “tenancy in common” as another option for holding property titles under multiple names.)

love me when I'm dead graffiti

Joint Representation is Optional

Married couples often seek joint representation in estate planning, meaning they both utilize the same estate planning lawyer. (And, yes, you most definitely want to hire a qualified, experienced estate planner.)  The benefits are obvious; joint representation can be cost-effective and can be more efficient since you can work together on a single Estate Plan Questionnaire in preparation to meet with the estate planning lawyer. Another advantage is that the joint representation somewhat forces open and honest communication between you as a couple as you make decisions on beneficiaries (such as children and grandchildren), executors, and disposition of property.

However, individual representation is of course an option and can help couples avoid conflicts of interest.) There are times when it is best for each spouse to seek separate legal counsel. One such time is when there are different interests that are at odds with each other. For example, if one or both people have children from a previous marriage/relationship that will be named as beneficiaries. There can be conflicting interests between stepparents and stepchildren when it comes to the estate. Additionally, if you both have your own individual estate planning lawyer, you may have more freedom to voice individual concerns, without having to audit your opinions in accordance with your partner’s desires.

All You Need is Love…and an Estate Plan

You’ve worked hard for the life you’ve built together with your spouse. This Valentine’s Day give a gift that ensures your commitment will carry on even after one of you passes on. The best way to get started is with my free, no-obligation Estate Plan Questionnaire. You can also email or call (515-371-6077) me at any time. I’d love to explain more how an estate plan says, “I love you,” way better than a card ever could!

kiss-me-tag-box

Thanks for reading the #GoFisch blog! Now through February 14 I’m sharing how flowers, jewelry, or chocolate are not the only gifts that say, “I love you.” While not explicitly romantic, a personalized, quality estate plan speaks to that lifelong consideration and care be it for your significant other, your children, or even simply yourself. 

Typical Valentine’s Day gifts usually come in the expected packaging—velvet or heart shaped-boxes topped with silky ribbons and complete with a red rose or a sappy card. But, an estate plan is not your typical Valentine’s present and therefore needs some special storage. You’re more than welcome to put a bow on the documents following the signing…finishing your estate plan is something worth celebrating! However, a gift bag won’t do for safely and securely protecting your estate plan.

I give my clients guidance on where to store their original estate plan documents because it should be both be kept private and safe, but should still be practical and accessible by those who need it such as your will’s executor or designated representative for financial matters. So, where specifically should your keep your original estate plan? There are a few different options.

In Your Home or Office

office space with flowers

When you think accessibility, the places you spend the majority of your time, such as your home or office, are going to be obvious choices. Some of my clients who’ve chosen this option even invested in a water- and fire-proof safe. (Of course, if you get a safe, folks who need to access the estate plan, such as a spouse or child, obviously need access to the lock combo!) In any case, put the plan in a spot that’s likely to be protected from flooding or a fire. For example, a dark, dank basement may not be the best place to keep your original estate plan documents. However, in your home office, in your desk’s top locked drawer (assuming others have a key), would be a much better spot.

Caution: No Treasure Hunts

Some people think “hiding” their will is a solution to any security concerns. This however inhibits accessibility! Sure, people may not be able to find your will while you’re living, but that also means your loved ones are unlikely to find it when they need it in the case that you suddenly pass away or are incapacitated and cannot communicate where it is. This is problematic for multiple reasons. First, your wishes cannot formally be known and therefore not fulfilled, and if the document cannot be found, the presumption is you either did not make a plan or you intended to revoke/destroy it. In the case of your death, the court will then act as if you died “intestate,” or without a will. The long probate process will ensue, and after some substantial court fees your estate will pass to your heirs-at-law as determined by state law. (Almost everyone I’ve ever met would have their estate pass according to their terms and not some impersonal law.)

Safety Deposit Box

safety deposit box

I know many folks who keep their important documents like birth certificates and social security cards in their safety deposit box. And when it comes to your original estate plan documents, your safety deposit box is a good option. Except, and this is hugely important, the safety deposit box must be readily accessible by executors, agents, and other fiduciaries. This requires making sure that your bank or credit union has the “right people on file.” Also, don’t assume that just because both you and your spouse have access to the safety deposit box, that is sufficient. What if there’s a joint accident or joint disaster and you’re both incapacitated? Sit down and talk with your bank or credit union to make absolutely certain those who need access to the safety deposit box will definitely have access in case of an emergency. Otherwise, a court order may be required before your financial institution will grant access, which equates to more bureaucratic hold-ups costing time, money, and even worse worse, adding additional stress for loved ones.

 With Your Designated Representative

So far, we’ve been talking about your original estate plan documents (with “wet” signatures). An original is always better than a copy. But a copy is better than nothing.  Consider giving a copy of you estate plan to the executor of your will or successor trustee of your revocable living trust, and other named fiduciaries.

two people drinking tea

The person you designate as your personal representative has the important job of settling your estate and they will need to be armed with your estate plan in order to reference your wishes and provide proof that they are authorized to take certain actions. This option makes a lot of sense considering this representative will have immediate cause to reference the paperwork following your death.

Up in the Cloud

I always recommend you retain a paper copy of your original estate plan, but there are many valid and secure options of also storing your key documents in the digital cloud. Like any financial, health, or other personal information accessible online, make certain you have a strong password and security. And, just like a paper version, at least your executor and other designated representatives will need to be able to access the plan when necessary. Whether that’s through an online beneficiary designation or by allocating the password to your executor or another trusted custodian, that’s up to you.

To recap: an estate plan can make a wonderful Valentine’s Day gift that shows love and commitment to your favorite people. And, since you spent time, effort, and money to create an estate plan that meets your goals, it’s essential to keep it in proper storage. Remember: if no one knows you created a plan or no one has access to it, it’s as if you never had one at all.

Before you can store your estate plan, you NEED an estate plan! Best place to get started is with my Estate Plan Questionnaire, or contact me.

wine and glasses

A fancy dinner out on the town is nice. Going to see a show is great. A trip to the spa for a couple’s massage is romantic. All are excellent date ideas and I fully recommend you pursue them! But, in addition, there’s one unconventional date idea you and your significant other should consider this Valentine’s Day: reviewing your estate plan.

forever scrabble tiles

Don’t worry, even though I’m an attorney I totally understand that reviewing multiple pages of a legal document isn’t outright romantic (much to the relief of my wife). However, because I am an estate planning attorney I know realistically how important it is to keep your estate plan updated and current. Taking time with your significant other to consider your current and future assets, as well as your estate planning goals is a practical “date” with major benefits for the future like saving time, money, and eliminating hardship on your family and friends.

Major life events like the birth of a child or grandchild, marriage or divorce, moving to a new state, a major change in financial situation, and/or the loss of a designated representative or beneficiary could necessitate changes to your estate plan to keep it valid.

An outdated estate plan could more easily be challenged in probate court or create unnecessary tensions between your loved ones. (This is yet another reason estate planning relates to the concept of love so well—the act of proper, quality estate planning can reduce the likelihood of future tensions and conflicts. Knowing that with a bit of planning and annual updates you can give your family and friends clear instructions that allow them to sidestep drama is certainly an act of love in its own right.)

Let’s use some hypothetical examples to explore why it’s necessary to update your will and the other important estate planning documents. If you have minor children you should have nominated a guardian in your will in case something was to happen to you. Let’s say the primary guardian you nominated has since moved far away—this may mean you need to consider nominating a new guardian.

In another example, it came to light since you made your estate plan that your financial power of attorney designated representative has fallen on hard times due to a gambling addiction…you’ll seriously need to consider amending the document and designating a different representative.

Speaking of change, remember too that state and federal laws are perpetually changing and when certain rules change, so too must your estate plan. Case in point? The “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017,” AKA the new GOP tax bill. For instance, the changes to the federal transfer tax exemptions could impact decisions as to if a certain type of trust is applicable. Again, this is where an experienced professional estate planner, whose job it is to stay up on these policy changes so you don’t have to, is beneficial.

two shells make a heart

A Legal & Loving Tradition

Again, it’s a good idea to review your estate plan at least once a year even though estate plans never expire. What better date reminder for a long-lasting document indicating a standing commitment to care and support than Valentine’s Day? Make it a tradition! (You can even drink wine and eat a box of chocolates while you review.) Along with reviewing the estate planning documents, it’s smart to check in with your professional advisors like your estate planner, financial advisor, insurance agent, and the like.

Of course, if you don’t have an estate plan yet that’s the first step. Even more “romantic” than reviewing your estate plan? Filling out my Estate Plan Questionnaire! Don’t hesitate to contact me with any questions and share the results of your estate plan review with me via the hashtag #PlanningForLove on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

You’ve probably heard you need to have a financial power of attorney in place, but the whole thing seems a little ambiguous…what does this important document (which is an important part of a complete estate plan) actually mean? Let’s cover the basics.

What is a financial power of attorney?

A financial power of attorney (“POA”) is a legal document that designates someone to handle your financial decisions on your behalf, if you are unable to do so while living, due to incapacitation. (Note that upon death, your financial power of attorney terminates and your will and/or trust kick in to guide decision making in your absence.)

There are two main types of financial power of attorney I offer my clients.

  • Immediate power—effective from the moment you sign it, without any medical certification; while immediate, you do not lose control of your affairs. (This is typically what I recommend.)
  • Springing power—becomes effective only upon medical certification that you are unable to carry on your legal and financial affairs.

What happens if I don’t have a financial POA?

If you don’t have a financial POA, and you were to become incapacitated, any financial decisions would need to be made by a court-appointed conservator. Under a court’s direction, the conservator would handle your financial matters. It’s a quite expensive and time consuming process, especially compared with the relative simplicity of executing a financial POA. Also, needless to say, most people would elect to trust their important financial decisions to a person they love and trust, over someone the court appoints.

After I die, can my agent continue to operate under my financial POA?

A common misperception is that your agent will be able to use this power after your death. Instead, at your death, any of the agent’s powers will be automatically revoked. The representative appointed through the probate process will carry out your estate plan.

Who should I choose to serve as my “attorney-in-fact?”

two people talking on the beach

The agent (or attorney-in-fact) you choose will be managing your finances, so it is critically important to choose someone trustworthy; someone who will not abuse or exploit this power; someone who will listen to your wishes, goals, and objectives, as included in the document or otherwise communicated; and someone who will look out for your best interests.

You also have the option of designating a successor agent who can take over if the original agent is unable or unwilling to serve. This is highly recommended.

Who should receive a copy of my financial POA?

The person named as agent and any person named as a successor agent should receive a copy. It may also be wise to share a copy with your financial institution(s), such as your bank/credit union, as well as with your financial advisor and/or accountant.

Can I revoke my financial POA?

Yes, you may revoke the financial POA at any time. You can also amend the financial POA (change it, revise it, etc.) at any time.

Are there other estate planning documents I need?

Yes, definitely! There are six “must have” estate planning documents. The financial power of attorney is one of these documents that create a comprehensive estate plan.

Who needs a financial power of attorney?

I’m a staunch believer that every adult Iowan needs an estate plan—including young professionalsnewlyweds, the non-wealthy, and especially people with minor children—and, therefore a financial power of attorney. A financial power of attorney can even be incredibly important (but often overlooked) for college students.


Do you have a financial POA? How about a full estate plan in place? Why or why not? I’d love to hear from you. Email me at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com or call (515-371-6077).

footballs on wall

Turn on ESPN, put on your jersey, and stock with fridge with a cold beverage…the College Football Playoff National Championship is tonight. While reading up on the stats and predictions for the southern powerhouse showdown between the Alabama Crimson Tide and Georgia Bulldogs in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, I couldn’t help but make a connection with estate planning. Goal posts to estate planning goals may seem like a stretch, but hear me out.

Football is a complex game—the field is full of moving parts and competing strategies; it’s a game of inches where just a few missteps or right moves can make a huge difference. Estate planning works the same way. Here are just five of the surprising similarities between estate planning and the game of football:

1. Your Clock Will Indeed Run Out

Just like every football season eventually comes to an end, your (hopefully long and healthy) season will also come to a close. When it does, you need a special kind of playbook for the rest of your team…AKA an estate plan. In this analogy an experienced lawyer is the great coach who is going to help you put plans in place for when the game changes unexpectedly or the stadium lights turn off for the last time. And, just like so much can change over the course of a season, a lot will happen over the course of your lifetime. That’s where annual reviews and revisions after significant events fit in.

While it is often difficult for people to ponder their unavoidable exit off their own fictitious field, preparation for what happens after your season is over can be one of the most comforting aspects of financial and legal planning.

2. The Main Players

Let’s take this analogy a bit further and put some estate planning terms into football speak.

Estate – An estate is the whole playbook, containing the following documents: your will; health care power of attorney; financial power of attorney; disposition of personal property; and final disposition of remains. (Click on the link preview below to delve deeper.)

Will – A will deals primarily with the distribution of assets and care for minor children. You need to make certain the will is well drafted, solid, and can stand up in court. Keep in mind though, important assets such as a life insurance policy payouts, retirement assets, and investment accounts may well contain beneficiary designations that trump your will.

Trust – You have lots of different options with this player. A trust can dictate how your assets will be dispersed, the timeline and manner in which they are dispersed, and who’s overseeing the process.

3. You Must Make Mid-Season Starting Lineup Adjustments

Just as a coach may switch up who’s starting partway through the season, you’ll may need to make adjustments to your estate plan as things inevitably change over the course of your life. Big events like marriage, birth of a child/grandchild, moving to a different state, a large change in financial status, divorce, and other significant changes are good reason to review your “playbook.”

4. No ‘I’ in Team

Your loved ones and close friends are all a part of your team; part of being a strong team player is including them on the plays you’re making. Discuss important aspects of your estate plan with the people it involves to avoid any confusion or conflict when it comes times for them to carry out your wishes. For instance, if you have minor children (under age 18) you’re going to want to establish legal guardianship if the worst happens and you’re no longer around to care for them. You’ll want to discuss with your chosen guardians ahead of time to make sure they’re willing and available to carry out the responsibility.

5. Final Score

football on field

 

There are probably at least a few more good football analogies I could tie into the conversation of why you need an estate plan, but the most important takeaway is that you never know when the game is going to change. So, you need to have your “playbook” written out ASAP. The best place to start is with my free, no obligation Estate Plan Questionnaire. You can also shoot me an email or give me a call at 515-371-6077 to discuss your situation (or football).

sad man

It’s the saddest day of the year. You all know what I am talking about: the last day of National Estate Planning Awareness Week.

Here in Iowa, the weather is appropriate to everyone’s mood. It’s grey and drizzly and overcast and cold. Almost as if the Universe itself was acknowledging the melancholy of ending NEPAW 2017.

woman standing in road in raincoat

But we sure had fun, didn’t we? We took a deep dive into the history of estate planning itself. Estate planning, in some form or another, has been an important aspect of societies in the world for hundreds and hundreds of years. In almost every society folks wanted to pass along their assets to the people they care about and want to provide for.

We talked modern lit, too. Kazuo Ishiguro won the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature and so we explored how his novel Never Let Me Go contained lessons for estate planners. After all, our lives are all too short. What should be our legacy?

We were reminded of the importance of Powers of Attorney. In particular, everyone should have a Power of Attorney for Health Care, a legal instrument that allows you to select the person that you want to make health care decisions for you, if and when you become unable to make such decisions for yourself.

Ultimate Estate Planning Checklist

The Gordon Fischer Law Firm Ultimate Estate Planning Checklist makes it easy to visualize your completion rate of the important documents and estate plan-related tasks. It’s an easy to read, handy dandy cheat sheet of items to accomplish to get you from zero to hero in estate planning world.

Yes, we sure had fun. [Sigh…looking out of rain streaked window, thinking]. While we’ll have to wait a whole year until the next National Estate Planning Awareness Week, let’s always choose to be aware of the importance of estate planning regardless of the day. With a quality estate plan crafted by an experienced lawyer, every single day of our lives can be like a day of National Estate Planning Awareness Week!

Here are three things you can do to keep the spirit of National Estate Planning Awareness Week alive regardless of the date on the calendar:

  1. If you don’t yet have an estate plan, get one. NOW. Filling out my Estate Plan Questionnaire is a great and easy way to start the process.
  2. Talk to your family, friends, colleagues, fellow churchgoers, and so on, about your own estate planning experiences. If it was easier and less expensive than you thought it might be, share that info. If having six basic documents, brought you great piece of mind, tell them so.
  3. Subscribe to my free e-newsletter, GoFisch, delivered to your inbox every month. It’s chock full of helpful information about Wills, Trusts, Powers of Attorney for Health Care, Powers of Attorney for Financial Matters, pet trusts, and really every aspect of estate planning.

I’d love to talk with you (even if you’re not as disappointed to see National Estate Planning Awareness Week pass as I am). Contact me by phone or email at any time.

senior citizen guardianship

Recently a friend sent me an article from The New Yorker, “How the Elderly Lose Their Rights.” (While a long read, it’s worthwhile.) The piece focused on the tragic case of a Nevada couple—Rudy and Rennie North—who fell victim to a court appointed guardian who failed (terribly) to put the senior victims’ best interests first and asserted the little known situation where “Guardians can sell the assets and control the lives of senior citizens without their consent—and reap a profit from it.” At first this situation is a bit confusing. How can a couple, with grown adult children, be assigned as wards of a state-appointed conservator/guardian who is then in charge of making health, financial, and social decisions for the individuals?

Given the current and growing population of elderly in the U.S. the issue of court-appointed guardianship it’s an important subject. According to the Census Bureau, “residents age 65 and over grew from 35.0 million in 2000, to 49.2 million in 2016, accounting for 12.4 percent and 15.2 percent of the total population, respectively.” And, between 2000 to 2016, 95.2 percent of all U.S. counties experienced increases in median age.

senior couple at table

What is a Guardian / Conservator?

To be able to protect yourself against such a situation, let’s establish what a guardian and/or conservator actually does and what are the causes for a conservator to be appointed. One person may be both the guardian and conservator and can be combined into a single court action. (Note: these definitions are applicable in the State of Iowa. In some states the words have different definitions and a “guardianship” in Iowa may be considered a “conservatorship” under the verbiage of a different state.)

Iowa Legal Aid offers a clear definition of the two terms:

“In a conservatorship:

  • The court appoints a person (the conservator) to control the property (or estate) of a ward.
  • A conservatorship deals with the person’s financial decisions.

In a guardianship:

  • The court appoints a person (the guardian) to control the person of the ward.
  • A guardianship deals with non-financial decisions such as where the ward lives and what type of medical care the ward gets.”

For simplicity’s sake, for the rest of the article we’ll just say guardian/guardianship, but know that could also include a conservator/conservatorship.

How does a Guardian get Appointed?

A guardian may be appointed if a court finds an individual incapacitated, which can be due to varied conditions like mental disorder, physical or mental disability, chronic abuse of drugs and/or alcohol, or physical illness. Basically if the court is convinced that a person lacks sufficient ability or understanding to communicate or make decisions in their best interest they could appoint a guardian for the continued supervision and care of the individual.

The process is such that a petition is filed in the prospective ward’s state with information regarding the proposed guardian, the guardian and ward’s relationship (if any), and other info on heirs. Any person deemed “competent” can be appointed as a guardian, so that could include an adult child/parent, spouse, or friend. It could also be a professional guardian entirely unrelated to the ward.

two senior citizen women

The legal standing for guardianship immigrated over to the U.S. colonies from England and is based on an English statute that’s survived for over 800 years. The state holds the power of parens patriae, “a duty to act as a parent for those considered too vulnerable to care for themselves.” Because this power is of the states and not federally regulated, there are disparate record keeping standards, sealed court records, and no databases of collective figures at the local, state, nor federal levels.

Potential Dangers of Guardianship

Guardianship in the U.S. straddles a fine line between protection and exploitation.

One of the major tenants of the concept of guardianship is “trust.” And, it’s true that there are great guardians who certainly work in the best interests of their charges. Most people assume the role of a guardian for good reason (like caring for a parent), but there are also substantiated cases where victims (largely senior citizens) were subjected to physical abuse, financial theft, and neglect. In a 2010 report, “Guardianships: Cases of Financial Exploitation, Neglect, and Abuse of Seniors,” the Government Accountability Office identified over 150 reported victims who had suffered a total of $5.4 million in stolen funds.

Guardianship has large potential for issues and consequences given the large quantities of people involved. Currently there over 1.5 million adults who live under the care of a guardian who is either a family member or unrelated professional. These guardians control an immense amount of assets to the tune of $273 billion. It’s also true that in the majority of states there are no qualifications to attain the status of guardian other than taking a course, having not declared bankruptcy recent, and not be convicted felon.

two seniors speaking on sidewalk

The American Bar Association published the statement that “an unknown number of adults languish under guardianship” even if they no longer have the need for someone to make decisions for them (or never did).

Another danger is that while guardianship could be terminated through a court hearing if it can be proved the need no longer exists, the ABA study also asserted the guardianship situation is typically permanent, leaving few ways out for the adults under care. Those who do try to fight against a court-appointed guardian often end up paying excessive amounts of money in attorney and court fees—some even going bankrupt in the process.

Additionally, the aging population of America places increased pressure on court resources which, in turn, can make it difficult for court appointmented guardians to have the optimal high level of oversight necessary. Thus, shady guardians can more easily slip through the cracks and continue to abuse the system and their wards’ assets.

How to Protect Against the Potential

It’s pretty safe to say that no one in their right mind would want a court-appointed guardian (particularly a stranger) to have control over your life. Especially in a way that they could legally:

  • Change your permanent residence to a more restrictive location.
  • Consent to withdraw life-sustain medical procedures.
  • Place restrictions on communications, visit, or interactions with another person.
  • Make decisions contrary to your wishes regarding general life in areas like recreational activities, clothing, and food choices.

As an example of the prospective consequences of these powers is how a guardian placing restrictions on whom their ward can interact with can result in isolating the ward from their family members. According to Elaine Renoire, a director of the National Association to Stop Guardian Abuse, a victims’ rights group, the top complaint she hears about guardians is how they can legally prohibit their wards from seeing or speaking to their loved ones.

senior citizen on bench

The following legal and estate planning tools are proactive measures you can take today to avoid the potential of being subject to court appointed guardianship.

Health Care Power of Attorney

Health care power of attorney is one of the six main documents all Iowans should have as a part of their estate plan. It allows you to choose a designated representative to make medical decisions on your behalf if you are to become incapacitated either temporarily (such as under anesthesia) or permanently. If you cannot express your medical treatment wishes clearly and coherently, your agent could then make such wishes be known on your behalf. The designated agent also retains the right to receive your medical record information that would otherwise be inaccessible as it is protected under HIPAA laws.

Financial Power of Attorney

Similar to the health care power of attorney, financial power of attorney is a legal document that designates someone to handle your financial decisions and take actions like pay bills, settle debts, and sell property on your behalf if you become incapacitated and unable to do this yourself.

Trust

The number of different types of trusts are practically limitless and a trust could be a valuable estate planning protection tool in some situations. A successor trustee could be named and the document could be used as a safeguard for financial protection.

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Proactivity is Key

By being proactive, you can be certain that someone you love and trust will be responsible with their guardianship powers and big/small life decisions, not the courts. Have these documents crafted by an experienced estate planner (not a DIY website) and keep them up-to-date as circumstances change. Luckily there are smart people in Iowa working toward policy change, such as the National Health Law and Policy (NHLP) Resource Center at the University of Iowa College of Law and their recent task force report citing 232 policy recommendations. But, the road toward substantial policy change is long and it’s best to have your own legal safeguards in place just in case.

Want to discuss guardianship further or get started on your powers of attorney documents? Contact me at any time.

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An estate plan is simply a set of legal documents to prepare for your death or disability. The specific documents you’ll need depends on various factors, including the number, size, type of your assets, and your overall estate planning goals.

If forced to list the top 10 major components and the associated goals of a comprehensive estate plan, I’d list the following (in rough order of importance):

  1. A plan for orderly disposition of all your property of your choosing.
  2. Naming guardians to raise and care for minor children.
  3. Naming fiduciaries to handle minor children’s assets.
  4. A plan to help fund the charities you supported during your lifetime.
  5. A financial power of attorney so you can name an agent to manage your financial decisions, if you are ever unable to do so, with as specific (or non-specific) directions to the agent as you desire.
  6. A healthcare power of attorney so you can name an agent to manage your financial decisions, if you are ever unable to do so, with as specific (or non-specific) directions to the agent as you desire.
  7. A plan for succession or sale of a business (often a close corporation or family business).
  8. A plan to dispose of property in a tax advantaged manner.
  9. Planning for life insurance to support those economically dependent on you and/or to provide liquidity for the estate.
  10. Making known your wishes (whether simple or complex) regarding the disposition of your final remains.

Of course, any order of importance is unique to that individual. Someone with, say, minor children will find items #2 and #3 incredibly important. Someone else with adult children, or no children at all, but with a very large estate may look at #8 as quite significant. One list doesn’t fit all, just like there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for estate planning.

 

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What are your estate planning goals? Feel free to share with others in the comments below.

Estate planning is a smart step you can take today. The easiest way to get started is with my free, no-obligation estate plan questionnaire. If you have questions or want to discuss your individual situation, don’t hesitate to reach me by phone (515-371-6077) or email.

College student in graduation robes

If your child went to college this year you likely helped them acquire dorm essentials, review their class schedule, and file all the necessary paperwork for enrollment, student loans, financial aid, and the like. Give yourself a pat on the back; as a parent you should feel great that the small human you raised is beginning to charter the course for a successful, fulfilling life!

However, there are likely two important documents you (and your college student) didn’t have on the college prep list: power of attorney for healthcare and financial power of attorney.

I encourage every Iowan to have these essential documents a part of their quality estate plan. However, college students are in a unique position since many don’t yet have the need for a full estate plan if they don’t have children, pets, substantial financial assets, real estate, at the time they head off for their undergraduate education. But, even if a college student doesn’t have a need for an entire estate plan, they still need these power of attorney documents. Let’s review both.

Power of Attorney for Healthcare

A power of attorney for healthcare designates someone to handle your healthcare 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 healthcare. Keep in mind that power of attorney for healthcare isn’t just about end-of-life decisions—it can cover any medical situation. So, in a worst case scenario, if your (adult) child were to have some sort of debilitating accident and were deemed by a medical professional unable to make healthcare decisions for themselves, then a trusted adult (such as you, the parent) could make such decisions in the best interest of their health.

Power of Attorney for Finances

The power of attorney for finances is similar to the power of attorney for healthcare; your designated agent has the power to make decisions and act on your behalf when it comes to your finances. This gives the selected agent 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.

While college students may not have many financial assets, their bank accounts, credit cards and apartment leases in their name should all be taken into consideration and accounted for. Additionally, a financial power of attorney can cover digital assets including online accounts for their school, banking, email, and social media, among others. Without passing along the necessary digital information and instructions to digital accounts, parents if they’re the authorized representative, can face major headaches on issues such paying bills, accessing bank records, shutting down social media profiles, and the like she says.

Course of Action: Avoid Court

Having power of attorney documents in place also prevents someone, like you as a parent, from having to go to court to get permission to act as the student’s proxy. Avoiding court at all costs (pun intended) is a wise plan as it’s both time consuming and expensive.

Does State Residency Matter?

A power of attorney that’s validly executed in the state in which an individual has full-time residency is usually honored across the U.S. But, what if your child is enrolled at a school out-of-state? Not a problem. Simply have your in-state attorney contact a recommended attorney in the state where the school is located to confirm the power of attorney document would be valid in that state and if not, recommend provisions to ensure it would be.

College student tossing cap into air

Why Now?

When your child is a minor (under age 18) you need certain legal documents such as nomination of guardianship. Once your child turns 18 (AKA becomes a legal adult) they are no longer under your immediate care as their guardian you as their parent are no longer responsible for making their healthcare decisions. Yet, all of us need someone we trust to make decisions in our best interest, which is why adults (even college students and young professionals) need power of attorney documents established.

How to get Started? Have a conversation.

As a parent you cannot force your college student to sign a power of attorney, but you may be one of the best people to discuss the topic. While a topic that includes debilitating injuries and the prospect of death is not a pleasant one for anyone involved, it’s nonetheless important. As a trusted adult you can explain how these documents could make a vital difference in some health and financial related situations. A good place to start in the conversation is explain what the documents are and how they can be used to execute their personal wishes.


I’m always happy to help more Iowans (at any age) get the necessary estate planning documents they need. Contact me by phone or via email at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com and we can get started.