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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.

A will may provide for disposition of the testator’s assets at the time the will is executed, but of course it may be many years—many decades, even—between the will’s execution and the testator’s death. What if between the execution of the will and the testator’s death, there are changes in circumstances (such as the death of beneficiary) which make it impossible for the executor to follow the dispositive provisions of the will? That’s where estate planning gets complicated and can open the door to litigation.

Changed Circumstances = Default

Of course, we would first look to the language of the will. But, what if the will fails to address the changed circumstances? In such cases, Iowa law provides default rules. Obviously, it is much preferable for the estate planner to raise the possibility of changed circumstances with the testator during the drafting process, and address them accordingly with clear language in the will. (Yet, another reason to use a lawyer to draw up your estate plan.) And, yes, you should keep your will (and overall estate plan) updated.

Death of a Beneficiary

If Grace provides in her will, “I give Lawrence $10,000,” and Lawrence dies before Grace, the will can’t be followed exactly as written. Of course, this situation can and should be avoided by careful drafting – the estate planner asking what the testator wants if a beneficiary should predecease the testator. If, continuing this example, Grace wants the bequest to pass to Lawrence’s estate or Lawrence’s children if Lawrence predeceases her, Grace should so specify in her will. If instead Grace wants the bequest to go to other beneficiaries, the will should spell that out, too.

The Doctrine of Lapse

Let’s take our example and apply the doctrine of lapse. Under the common law, a bequest would fail, or lapse, if the beneficiary predeceased the testator. The bequest would simply fall back to the estate.

Iowa’s Anti-Lapse Statute   

Iowa is among the majority of states which have adopted anti-lapse statutes. Iowa Code Section 633.273 provides that if a beneficiary (actually, the statute uses the legal term devisee) dies before the testator, leaving children who survive the testator, the devisee’s children inherit the property devised, unless the terms of the decedent’s will is clear and explicit to the contrary.

Real Life Case

Clyde Guthrie executed a will in 2002 and died in 2006. His wife predeceased him, and so did two of his five children. Both of the predeceased children died before Guthrie executed his will. That turned out to be a key fact. Guthrie’s will left his entire estate equally to his five children except “in the event any of my children should predecease me leaving issue who survive me, then the share of such predeceased child shall go in equal shares to his or her issue who survive me . . .” His three surviving children claimed that the will language meant to include only them—the decedent’s children that survived him, and not the grandchildren of one of their deceased siblings. That predeceased sibling only had one child, and that child also predeceased the decedent, but left two surviving children–great-grandchildren of the decedent. (The other predeceased child died without having had children).

 

old hand and baby hand

Application of Facts to Iowa Code Section 633.273

On first glance Guthrie’s will appeared to be clear. Again, his will stated that if children predeceased him, “the share of such predeceased child shall go in equal shares to his or her issue who survive me.” However, the Iowa anti-lapse statute defines “devisee” as a person who dies after execution of the decedent’s will unless the will clearly specifies otherwise. Here the pre-deceased child that left surviving issue died long before the decedent executed his will. So, the anti-lapse statute didn’t apply, and the great-grandchildren were not beneficiaries of their great-grandfather’s estate.

Guthrie of course knew that two of his children had already died. The language of the Guthrie’s will, the Iowa Court of Appeals reasoned, could only possibly refer to the possibility of any or all of the three remaining children dying before he did – and the decedent’s will did not clearly state that issue of an already pre-deceased child should be included. (Review the case: Estate of Guthrie v. Busch, No. 8-093/07-1427 (Iowa Ct. App. May 14, 2008).

Back to the Basics: Let’s Review

With that example in mind, let’s review again the basics of the doctrine of lapse. Under the common law, if a beneficiary dies before the testator, the bequest lapses, i.e., goes back to the estate.

Iowa changed this rule by adopting an anti-lapse statute. Under current Iowa law, if the beneficiary dies before the testator, but leaves children who survive the testator, the beneficiary’s children inherit the property devised, unless the terms of the decedent’s will are clear and explicit to the contrary.

Of course, the problem of lapse/anti-lapse can be avoided through careful drafting by a trained professional, as well as annual reviews to see if your estate plan needs updating.


Have questions about your own estate plan that may be in need of revisions after learning about lapse? Contact me and we can talk about what changes would be wise for you to incorporate into your estate plan.