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red chairs in conference room

Undoubtedly knowledge is power when it comes to understanding how different laws directly affect you. Indeed, living in a modern society mean that an interplay of laws govern pretty much every aspect of our lives in one way or another—even when it comes to death. That’s why I’m dedicated to breaking down terms (like in my “legal word of the day” series) and explaining processes (like how to form a 501(c)(3) in Iowa) related to GFLF’s core services. Because even if you’re not an attorney, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t/can’t learn about the interplay of different laws  Similarly, I think it’s important to get the word out about events in the community that can help grow knowledge on important topics like estate planning.

The Iowa State Bar Association (ISBA) announced they’re producing a seminar series called the “People’s Law School.” The first public information event will focus on three super important estate planning elements:

While the seminar is being billed as one for “older Iowan issues,” I have to remind that everyone needs an estate plan! Even young professionals and definitely married couples. Definitely people with kids and people with pets! Even college students can benefit from putting a power of attorney in place. And, especially working and middle-class folks need a up-to-date estate plan.

At the seminar, attendees can have a living will or medical power of attorney form notarized at the event if they bring their completed documents.

The session will be held 5:30-7 p.m. on September 19 at the ISBA Headquarters in Des Moines. Interested? You can register online here.

According to their website, the ISBA will “identify other topics of public interest and host similar seminars in the future,” so be on the look out for other upcoming opportunities to learn more about the law as a part of your life.

If you’ve dropped all the excuses and committed to making your estate plan happen, that’s great! It’s easy to get started with my free Estate Plan Questionnaire. Questions or want to discuss your estate? Don’t hesitate to contact me via email or by phone at 515-371-6077.

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

Health hypothetical #1

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

Health hypothetical #2

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

Health hypothetical #3

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

Common Legal Need for Jill, Sam, and Elizabeth?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Serious Incapacitation

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

alarm clock with red cross on it

How Health Care PoA Works

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

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

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

Many Types of Health Care Decision

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

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

What Happens Without Health Care PoA?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Health Care PoAs in our Hypothetical Examples

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

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

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

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

Do you have a Health Care PoA Yet?

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

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

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

table with book and tea

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

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

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

All in the Family

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

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

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

English moors

First Wuthering Heights Lesson: Stop the Procrastination

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

What Happened to the Estate

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

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

Second Wuthering Heights Lesson: Intestate Succession

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

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

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

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

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

books sign

Write Your Plan Before “The End”

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

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

xray-doctor

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

Who can be my Health Care POA Representative?

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

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

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

What types of Health Care Decisions does a POA Cover?

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

 

Assorted pills

When Would I use a Health Care POA?

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

What is a Living Will?

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

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

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

Important Definitions

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

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

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

 

doctor stethoscope

How do I Make a Living Will?

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

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

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

What do I do Once I Sign a Living Will?

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

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

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

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

surgeons walking down hallway

What About a Living Will Made in Another State?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Communication is Key

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

Review and Get Started

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

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

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

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

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!

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.

woman walking down street with flowers

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.

Checklist with coffee and croissant

It’s National Estate Planning Awareness Week! In an effort to break down the barriers, myths, and excuses surrounding estate planning, I’ve created this handy dandy ultimate estate planning checklist. It runs down just about everything you need in terms of a comprehensive, quality estate plan including the six major documents, reviewing beneficiary designations, considering if a trust is applicable to you, and discussing your estate plan with your loved ones.

 

Ultimate Estate Planning Checklist

I would love to help you check these items off your list. If you want to get started, download my Estate Plan Questionnaire. Otherwise contact me to discuss your individual situation and what estate planning provisions make the most sense.

Let’s set everything straight about all the benefits and important aspects of a health care power of attorney.

What is a health care power of attorney?

A health care power of attorney (“POA”) is a legal instrument that allows you to select the person (called an “agent”) that you want to make health care decisions for you, if and when you become unable to make such decisions for yourself.

healthcare power of attorney

What types of decisions can be made by a health care POA?

A health care POA can govern any decision related to your health that you want to address. A health care POA may include decisions related to organ donation, hospitalization, treatment in a nursing home, home health care, psychiatric treatment, end-of-life (i.e. the use of life support), and more.

When would I use a health care POA?

A health care POA is used when you become unable to make health care decisions for yourself. Your agent will be able to make decisions for you based on the information you provided in your health care POA. Equally important, your agent will be access your medical records, communicate with your health care providers, and so on.

doctor stethoscope

What happens if I don’t have a health care POA?

If you don’t have a health care POA, and you should become disabled to the point where you are unable to make health care decisions for yourself, the hospital will do everything possible to save your life.

Your family, without guidance from you, will be faced with agonizing decisions. Your family members may not be able to agree on how to handle your medical care. Or, you might disagree with the decision your family ultimately makes.

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

This is all very complicated, time consuming, and expensive.  A health care POA simplifies this process by giving you control over how decisions are made for you and allowing you to choose who will carry out your wishes. Best of all, it leaves your family with peace of mind.

Is there a “one-size-fits-all” POA for health care?

No! All Iowans are special and unique, and so are each individual’s issues and concerns. Consequently, this article is presented for informational purposes only, not as legal advice. Please consult your lawyer for personal advice.

Do I need other estate planning documents in addition to a health care POA?

Yes, definitely! (It’s even essential for college students.) There are six “must have” estate planning documents that make up a complete, comprehensive estate plan. (Plus some people may also need to consider a trust.)


Do you have a health care POA currently? And do you have a complete estate plan? Why or why not? I’d be most interested in any thoughts or comments. Email me anytime at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com or call 515-371-6077.