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two hands with wedding rings

Asking if your current spouse of many years can disinherit you is a question I hope you never have to ask. But, it’s an interesting query to say the least, and the answer may astound and amaze you.

It’s super uncomfortable, even for an estate planner like me, to think about my wife leaving me out of her estate plan, let alone her passing away. So, I’m going to use a hypothetical example.

Mr and Mrs sign

Scenario: John, Mary, and the Lover

Let’s say John and Mary are legally married. One sad day, Mary has a massive heart attack and dies. John is shocked to discover that Mary had a valid will he knew nothing about. Far worse, Mary specifically disowned John, said John should get absolutely nothing, and instead Mary left her entire estate to her paramour (aka lover); someone John knew nothing about!

Wow, ice cold, Mary, ice cold.

What result? I’ll give you four options, pick which you think is most correct.

  1. The “manstress” gets everything, John gets nothing.
  2. John gets everything; the lover gets nothing.
  3. The lover gets everything, but only after a lengthy, awkward, and hard-fought court battle.
  4. The lover gets some of the estate, but so does John.

Have you picked?

Answer “D” is most correct, at least under Iowa law.

You see, under Iowa law, a spouse cannot completely disinherit another spouse (assuming they have a valid marriage and they are married at the time of the first spouse’s death).

Elective Share Law

Iowa has an “elective share” law. (You can read the specific Iowa Code Section here if you’re curious. The citation is Iowa Code § 633.237).

In Iowa, a surviving spouse chooses between inheritance under a will OR elective share in the deceased spouse’s estate. Until the surviving spouse files an affidavit for claiming elective share, it will be presumed that the surviving spouse will take the inheritance under the will.

In Iowa, the elective share of the surviving spouse comprises of all of the exempt personal property and 1/3 of the value of all real estate, after the debts have been paid off and 1/3 of whatever is remaining of personal property. The surviving spouse may occupy the homestead in lieu of taking the 1/3 share of real estate of the deceased spouse.

So, Can My Spouse, Disinherit Me?

Bottom line, my wonderful wife, Monica, cannot disinherit me so long as we are legally married. Even if she (or her lawyer) writes a will that states I should get not one single penny from her estate no matter what, I would still have the option of choosing an elective share. Obviously, in this case, just like in John and Mary’s situation, the decision will be an exceedingly easy one. The will give me zero, zilch, nada, nothing—of course I am going with the elective share option.

Gordon and Monica wedding day

This is Monica & I on our wedding day!

But you know what? The elective share is a narrow exception that proves the general rule. By that, I mean the following: one of the great reasons to do proper estate planning, is that you can give what you want, to whom you want, how you want, when you want. (And if you do NOT do proper estate planning, well, then, you leave it up to the Iowa Legislature and Iowa Courts to dispose of your property).

Again, it bears repeating: estate planning allows to give what you want, to whom you want, how you want, when you want. On top of accounting for your loved one in you estate plan, you also have the wonderful opportunity to help the cause or causes that you are most passionate about through charitable bequests in your will.

Want more on this subject? Check out this Facebook live video of me explaining this “in person.”

Have more questions about you will and estate planning? Maybe how you and your spouse can achieve your collective and individual goals? How about avoiding conflicts of interest? I offer everyone a free one-hour consultation. You can reach me anytime through email at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com or call my cell at 515-371-6077. I’d truly love to hear from you!

cutting into a pie

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

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

Change & Your Estate Plan

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

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

Major Life Events

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

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

  • The birth or adoption of a child or grandchild
  • Marriage or divorce
  • Illness or disability of a spouse or beneficiary
  • Purchasing a home or other large asset
  • Moving to another state
  • Large increases or decreases in the value of assets, such as investments
  • If you or your spouse receives a large inheritance or gift
  • If any family member, or other heir dies, becomes ill, or becomes disabled
  • Launch or closure of a business

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

Changes in goals

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

Laws are dynamic and changing

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

Meet the Donor Family

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

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

Divorce

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

Changes in financial status

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

Birth

 

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

Major changes in health

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

New real estate outside Iowa

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

vw bus in arizona

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

woman doing photo at sky

You’ve almost certainly had to designate your beneficiaries on savings and checking accounts, life insurance plan, annuity, 401(k), pension, or IRA. All of these accounts are passed along at the time of death via beneficiary designation (sometimes referred to as payable on death (PODs) or transfer on death (TODs) accounts). It’s easy to forget, but beneficiary designations take precedence over whatever is written in your will. So, even if you have the six basic “must have” estate planning documents in place, you still need to address who is named as your beneficiaries.

I have a few simple tips for reviewing and protecting your important accounts:

  1. Be sure to name a primary beneficiary (or beneficiaries), using the appropriate beneficiary designation forms.
  2. Be sure to also name an alternate beneficiary in case the first beneficiary dies before you.
  3. Don’t name your estate as the beneficiary (not without lots of expert advice).
  4. Review the beneficiary forms once a year to make sure they still reflect your wishes.
  5. Update the beneficiary forms more often if there has been a change in your life circumstances, such as a birth, adoption, marriage, divorce, or death. For example, if you’ve gotten a divorce you may not want your ex-spouse to be the beneficiary of your life insurance.
  6. Each time you change the beneficiary designation form, send it to the organization that holds the account, and request they acknowledge receipt.

 

couple holding hands in green space

Checking your beneficiary designations is a smart estate planning step you can take today. But, of course, you’re going to need a solid estate plan to account for all of your assets that are not transferred via beneficiary designation. A great way to get your key estate plan documents started is by downloading my free, no-obligation Estate Plan Questionnaire. You can also contact me by phone (515-371-6077) or email with any questions or concerns.

hands of 2 grooms

Everyone needs an estate plan! By estate planning, I mean a set of legal documents which cover everything from who will inherit your property, to who will care of your pets, to your health care decisions on subjects like life-sustaining measures.

In Obergefell v. Hodges, the United State Supreme Court’s 2015 decision which legalized same-sex marriage, was a major win for LGBT rights and, indeed, human rights. It was also a simple yet revolutionary statement that love is love is love.

Love is love written on card

You may be surprised to learn that Obergefell also had an enormous impact on estate planning. It can’t be it covered by a single article, so I’ll hit the high points.

Bottom line: the decision opened a multitude of previously unattainable tools and tax-savings that come along with a legal and recognized marriage. Yet, same-sex couples still may have situations that require extra or special planning. Here are five considerations for same-sex spouses engaged in estate planning.

Unlimited Marital Deduction

The unlimited marital deduction is a money-saving must for all 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). Prior to Obergefell, same-sex couples had to depend on their individual applicable exclusion in order to provide for a surviving partner.

(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.)

marriage equality flags

Guardianship of Minor Children

A will is so critically important for several reasons, including the fact a parent can make a designation of guardianship for minor children should something happen to the parent while the child is still under age 18. Without a will, no guardianship can be established, and Iowa Courts must choose guardians. Unfortunately, with no clear evidence as to what the former caregivers would have preferred, the Court must make its “best guess” as to who the parents would have preferred and what would be in the best interest of the child. The Court may, or may not, choose who the caregivers would have named.

Child smiling on bridge

Establishing guardianship is SO important for all parents, but especially so for same-sex parents. The legal relationship between a minor child and a parent in a same-sex marriage should specifically be identified in the estate plan. Additionally, if only one spouse is currently the natural or adoptive parent of a minor child, the spouse of the said parent should consider adopting the child to legalize the relationship. Without this officially established relationship, the death of the adoptive/natural parent could open the door for a custody battle with the deceased’s family or the child’s birth parents. To avoid litigation (and avoiding litigation in estate planning is always a good idea), co-parent adoptions protect each parent’s rights regarding guardianship.

If adoption isn’t on the table, it’s smart to create a trust with specific provisions for the relationship between the non-legal parent and the minor child if someone else were to become the guardian.

(Expert advice: The adoption tax credit is not available for a spouse adopting a spouse’s child. If adoption is in the plans it may be financially advantageous for the adoption to take place prior to marriage.)

Give Your Assets to your Child(ren)

Adoption also plays an important role not just in guardianship but in the passage of assets. Typically, when parents die their assets are passed on to their child(ren). If this is indeed an estate planning goal for a same-sex couple, adoption should definitely be considered since it’s more common in same-sex marriages for only one parent to be biologically related to the child.

The term for adoption by a spouse (without the “first parent” losing any parental rights) varies from state-to-state and can be called second-parent adoption, co-parent adoption, stepparent adoption, or confirmation adoption.

mom and daughter blowing kiss

Once adoption is final, an adoptive parent has all the permanent legal rights and responsibilities of a parent-child relationship, exactly the same as that of a birth parent.

Without the legal determination and an estate plan the child(ren) may not get anything as the couple’s assets could flow instead to other family members.  

Professional Planner

For all the aforementioned considerations and more, it’s smart for all couples, but especially same-sex couples, to avoid the DIY online estate plan templates. Most of these services don’t include the specific provisions and important estate plan needs of LGBT couples. Seek out a lawyer with ample experience in estate planning who understands the potential legal challenges your estate could face so they can adequately protect your assets from potential peril. For instance, if you think the situation could arise where family members who disprove of the marriage or decisions regarding the estate could create future conflict, your lawyer should be able to advise on how a “no contest” clause to be incorporated into the estate plan.

Comprehensive Review

As stated before, given the tax-saving tools that marriage provides, it’s nothing but beneficial to review any and all existing estate plan documents of each spouse. (Married couples often seek joint representation in estate planning, but individual representation can help couples avoid conflicts of interest.)

In your estate plan review confirm that definitions accurately reflect relationships with verbiage such as “spouse,” “children,” “husband,” “wife,” and the like, so there’s no ambiguity when it comes to execution of the plan.

Following marriage, it’s also a good idea to 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.)

Additionally, don’t forget to check your beneficiary designations on accounts such as savings/checking, insurance, 401k, and retirement benefits, as these designations actually trump your will.

Ask your professional advisors—lawyer, financial advisor, insurance agent—to help you maximize your money-saving benefits when it comes to gift, income, and federal/state estate taxes.

two brides getting married

Get Started

You’ve worked hard for the assets you’ve built and the property you’ve acquired. Almost assuredly you want these assets to pass to the ones you love—the ones you’ve built a life with and around. Don’t let legal loopholes, family members that will never fully understand that love is love, or guardianship issues get in the way you crafting your legacy. It’s never too early to get started on your estate plan (with my free, no-obligation) estate plan questionnaire. I’m always happy to discuss the topic over the phone (515) 371-6077 or via email.

Marriage document

In Iowa, Spouses Can’t Disinherit Spouses

Can Monica, my wife, disinherit me? In a word, no.

Assuming a valid marriage in Iowa, a spouse cannot disinherit a spouse. Even if a spouse wants to do so, even if that’s the spouse’s true intent—nope.

What If…?

What if in a legal will, the first-to-die spouse includes the following clause:

“I acknowledge that I have a spouse, named Gordon Fischer, who is not provided for in this will. It is my specific intention to not provide for my spouse Gordon Fischer under the terms of my will.”

Even with a clear clause like this, I, Gordon, am not disinherited. Why is this so?

Statutory “Forced Share”

Iowa Seal

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.

Oral Agreement to Disinherit

What if Monica and I talk about this matter and come to an oral agreement. Something like this:

Monica: I want to disinherit you. Should you be the surviving spouse, you should get nothing.

Gordon: Wow. That hurts. But if that’s what you want honey, I agree.

Is this agreement enforceable? No, for several reasons. First, it’s not written and oral agreements are generally unenforceable. Also, it doesn’t and can’t displace the plain language of an Iowa statue which allows a spouse to elect a forced share against the will, and gain one-third of the estate. You can’t orally agree to ignore a statute’s clear intent!

Written Agreement to Disinherit

But what if Monica asked me to agree, in writing, to not take a spousal share? Say, we write up a formal contract stating I’m essentially not getting anything under Monica’s will, no how, no way. I also agree in the contract that under no circumstances will I take a statutory share.

Would such a written contract be enforceable? No.

While Iowans have a great deal of freedom to contract, just like the above oral agreement example, you can’t contract in direct opposition to a clear statute.

Postnuptial Agreements

Also, interestingly, Iowa courts have ruled postnuptial agreements are not enforceable.

Married penguin cake toppers

Postnuptial agreements are written contracts between spouses that are executed after the couple has married (as opposed to the prenuptial agreements you usually hear about). Iowa courts have struck down postnuptial agreements for nearly a century, since 1912 when the Iowa Supreme Court first found postnuptial agreements to be of no validity. In re Kennedy’s Estate, 135 N.W. 53 (Iowa 1912).

But Monica, it’s OK. Very likely you’ll be the surviving spouse anyway.


Beyond just your spouse, it’s important to have an updated estate plan to define all of your beneficiaries and wishes for your estate following your death. Have questions or need more information? Feel free to reach out any time. You can contact me by email at Gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com or give me a call at 515-371-6077.

Estate planning revisions

Oh, you have an estate plan? High five!

You are already better off than most of your fellow citizens. In fact, numerous surveys have shown that about half of adult Americans do not even have a basic will.

So, kudos to you if you’ve already knocked out this major life decision and planning initiative. If you already have a will, there are at least five major scenarios in which you should revisit and make changes accordingly:

  1. Moving out-of-state or, of course, out-of-country. What makes a will legal and valid in Iowa is not the same in other states, like, say, Ohio or Rhode Island. Each state has its own set of laws governing wills, probate, and so on. Also, if you buy property in another state and/or set-up a secondary residence, this must be included in your estate plan.
  2. If something happens to one of your beneficiaries or fiduciaries. Life happens to everyone else in your plan, and sometimes this means beneficiary passes away or a fiduciary retires. Reviewing your plan’s key contact list at least annually, in addition to on an as-needed basis, will keep everything fresh and relevant.
  3. If your marriage status changes. Needless to say, you will want to update your estate plan in the case of a marriage or divorce. Every attorney I know, myself included, has heard horror stories of what happens when an ex-spouse inherits a huge sum of money, merely because an estate plan wasn’t properly updated.
  4. If you have kids (or more kids). You’ll want to ensure that in case something happens to you that your children are going to be protected by a trusted guardian. And, also, presumably you’ll want to add the children as beneficiaries, etc.
  5. If your financial situation changes significantly. This includes inheriting money or complex assets. Perhaps your business accelerates astronomically. Maybe you have what professional advisors call “a liquidity event,” (e.g., you’re flush with cash). Your estate plan, and its distributions, will need to be revisited to accommodate such changes in fortune.

life change ahead road sign

This, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. I wrote a longer blog post about revisiting your estate plan in light of major life changes, which you can find here.

Have questions? Need more information?

A great place to start is the Estate Plan Questionnaire, or feel free to reach out at any time. You can contact me by email at Gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com or give me a call at 515-371-6077.