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hammers and tools hanging in garage

Three Parties

I’ve previously written about the three parties necessary for every trust: (1) the settlor (sometimes called the donor or grantor); (2) the trustee; and (3) the beneficiary.

Two Other Elements

Besides three parties, at least two other elements are necessary for a valid trust.

  1. The trust instrument is the document that sets forth the terms of the trust.
  2. The other necessary element is property. After all, the trustee must be holding something for the benefit of the beneficiary.

Property of the Trust

When laypersons use the word “property,” I believe they usually mean real estate. But, lawyers use the term “property” much, much more broadly, to mean literally any transferable interest. Sometimes trust property is also referred to as the res or corpus or assets of the trust. (Bonus words!)

Any property can be held in trust. Seriously, check out this list of 101 assets that would fit in a trust. You could likely think of literally hundreds more types or categories of property to place in your own individual trust.

Pour Over Trust

How about an unfunded trust that will receive property at some point in the future? Can you even do that?

Yes, that can certainly be done. This is usually called a pour-over trust. (More bonus words!) The pour-over trust deserves its own blog post. Briefly, a pour-over trust is usually set up by language in a will. A will may validly devise property to a trust, established during the testator’s lifetime, and then funded at her death.

Example

Let’s take a very simple example. Kate has a lawyer write her will, including language that at her death all her Monster Truck memorabilia be placed in a trust for the benefit of her nieces and nephews. Only at Kate’s death will the property be transferred into the trust, not before.

Monster Truck

Take-Aways

The important points are that property is necessary, at some point, to make a trust valid, and that literally any transferable interest in property – anything! – can be held in a trust.

Let’s Talk Trusts

It can be difficult to determine on your own if a trust may be right for your personal situation. It certainly doesn’t hurt to take me up on my offer for a free one-hour consultation. Give me a call at 515-371-6077 or shoot me an email at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com.

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 this Monday, January 13, 2020. (The game kicks off at 8 p.m.) While reading up on the stats and predictions for a tiger showdown between the LSU Tigers and Clemson Tigers in New Orleans’ Mercedes-Benz Superdome, I couldn’t help but make a connection with estate planning. Goalposts 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 a 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 a 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 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 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 a 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).

Estate planning is all about strategy—leaving the right assets and inheritances to the right beneficiaries; timely distributions of the estate; and avoiding as many taxes and fees as possible. Another strategic move is deciding whether you and your spouse should use the same lawyer, or whether you should each have your own lawyer.

If you are married, please note you have the option of hiring separate attorneys for your estate planning needs.

Though the goals of most married persons are the same when it comes to wills, trusts, and estate planning, some married individuals (especially individuals who have children from prior marriages) have differing views on the ownership of property and beneficiaries, and naming executors, trustees, and guardians.

Likewise, some married individuals have private information they do not wish to share with their spouse — information that may be essential to the estate planning process that would have to be disclosed to the attorney and, therefore, disclosed to the spouse if I am representing both spouses.

Additionally, sometimes married individuals have “awkward” questions they wish to ask the attorney — questions they would not be comfortable asking in the presence of their spouse, such as how a divorce might affect their estate plan.

By obtaining separate attorneys, you would be able to:

  1. share in confidence any secrets or private information with your attorney that may be important to the estate planning process;
  2. ask in confidence whatever questions you may have; and
  3. receive completely confidential advice and counsel. 

If represented jointly, you will be waiving and losing all three of the above rights with respect to your spouse.

If you decide to obtain separate attorneys, this firm would be pleased to represent either one of you separately. If you are married and decide you would like this firm to represent both of you, then complete this Estate Plan Questionnaire jointly (please do not fill out two separate forms).

Joint Representation

 

Two brides in white wedding dresses

For many married couples, joint representation is a likely choice. 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.

It’s important for your lawyer to avoid conflicts of interest, so they can uphold and respect your attorney-client privilege. If you choose to have joint representation you may waive the conflict of interest clause so that you may be represented together. Or, of course, you can seek separate legal counsel and not sign such a clause.

This communication is critical if you opt for joint representation. Without it, disaster can strike mid-meeting with the lawyer if couples disagree about which child is most responsible in terms of estate execution or how much of a trust fund each beneficiary should receive at age 18.

Individual Representation

 

couple holding hands in green space

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.


Have questions? Need more information? A great place to start is by downloading my Estate Plan Questionnaire, or feel free to reach out at any time; my email is Gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com and cell phone is 515-371-6077. 

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.

Estate Planning Checklist GFLF

 

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

letter of instruction

When I prepare estate plans for my clients, they typically include six key documents. For more complex estates, the plan may also involve trust and/or business succession documents. However, to make estate planning as simple and the least chaotic for your loved ones tasked with fulfilling your wishes, I also recommend drafting another document: a letter of instruction.

What Exactly is a Letter of Instruction?

Think of a letter of instruction like an easy-to-read-and-understand summary shortcut for your estate plan’s executors and representatives. Its main purpose is to help guide the person(s) settling an estate through the process, step-by-step, in plain, clear language.  The letter can serve as a cheat sheet of sorts. It’s not legally required and certainly doesn’t take the place of a valid will, but it’s a meaningful nod to those you have tasked with handling your affairs.

Your letter of intent doesn’t have to go by any specific form or outline, so some people tend to use it as a way of giving personal instructions and giving details beyond what is articulated in your estate planning documents. A useful letter of intent can include the following information:

  • Location(s) of:
    • Important papers such as birth certificates, any divorce/marriage certificates, citizenship papers, etc.
    • Estate plan.
    • Titles and/or deeds to real estate and rental property.
    • Recent copies of all financial statements like tax returns and other potentially important legal documents.
    • Safety deposit boxes and the respective keys.
    • Tangible property that may not be readily accessible
  • Names, passwords, account numbers, and PIN numbers for financial accounts.
  • Social security number.
  • Contact information for:
  • Instructions for the care of any pets. (You may also want to establish an animal care trust.)

Regular Updates & Safe Storage

Like your other estate planning documents, the letter of instruction should be reviewed annually and updated as needed. Because the letter of intent includes confidential personal information it should be stored in a secure place that can also be accessible by your estate plan’s executor.

But First, an Estate Plan!

Before you go about drafting a letter of intent, it’s important to place a priority on executing an estate plan that helps you meet your goals and define your legacy. My free, no-obligation Estate Plan Questionnaire (the first of the six key estate planning documents) is a great place to get started. Otherwise, contact me by phone or email with any questions and to discuss which estate planning strategies may be best for you and your family.

Settlor (or Donor or Grantor)

The person who creates a trust is called the settlor (sometimes called the donor or grantor). It is the settlor’s intent which is of paramount importance. It is the intent of the settlor that determines whether a trust has been created.

Here’s a great read with a rundown on the basics of what a trust is:

Intent Is Everything

If a settlor transfers property to a recipient with the intent that the recipient hold the property for someone else, then a trust has indeed been created. If the settlor transfers property with the intent that the recipient use the property for her own benefit, then NO trust has been created.

BONUS WORD! Precatory Trust

What if a settlor transfers property to a recipient with just a wish that the recipient use the property for the benefit of someone else, but does not impose any legal obligation? In such a situation, no legal trust is created. Instead, this is called a precatory trust, but is not a trust at all, because the settlor placed no legal responsibilities on the recipient. A precatory trust is, again, not a trust and is not governed by the law of trusts.

Three Easy Hypotheticals

  • Let’s look at three quick examples to make this clear. Mack gives stock to Julie. Mack intends that the stock be for Julie’s own use. Mack is NOT the settlor of a trust, because no trust has been created.

Stock market sheet

  • Grace gives a vacation house to Maddie, intending that Maddie hold the house for the benefit of Zach. Grace is the settlor of a trust. If a settlor transfers property to a recipient with the intent the recipient holds the property for the benefit of someone else, then a trust is created.

vacation home on lake

  • Thomas gives a coin collection to Parker, just wishing that Parker would hold the coins for Danna. This is a mere precatory trust, not a trust at all because the settlor is not imposing any legal responsibilities on the recipient.

coin collection

Questions? Let’s Talk.

When it comes to estate planning, I’m all about breaking down the legalese barriers. This hopefully clarified the definition of settlor, but you may have questions…which is great! Contact me to discuss further the status of your estate plan and decisions regarding your trust. Reach me by email at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com or phone at 515-371-6077.

hands of 2 grooms

Everyone needs an estate plan! This goes for if you’re a young professional or have minor children or are retired. And, it goes for all married couples

This year marks a decade since Iowa Supreme Court decision of Varnum v. Brien, which legalized same-sex marriage in the state. This case was a precursor and set a standard echoed subsequently in other states and eventually at the national level. The Supreme Court’s opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage was a major win for both LGBTQ and human rights. 

Love is love written on card

The 10-year marker of the Varnum decision reminded me that Obergefell had an enormous impact on estate planning. With same-sex marriage now recognized across the country, it 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. You may be surprised to learn that It can’t be it covered by a single article, so I’ll hit the high points. 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 daughter blowing kiss

Once an 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.

Pets are a huge part of many families. They are there to snuggle you, greet you every day when you come home, and share so many of life’s best memories with you.

For most people, planning what happens to your loved ones, including pets, is a big contributor to sound peace of mind. In the past, probate and trust laws did not allow pet owners to provide for the care of their pets after death, however, in 1990, the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws enacted the first pet trust statute in the Uniform Probate Code. Fortunately, the State of Iowa is one of the majority of states that have adopted a law on animal trusts, most often referred to as “pet trusts.” It reads as follows:

633A.2105 Honorary trusts — trusts for pets.

  1. A trust for a lawful noncharitable purpose for which there is no definite or definitely ascertainable beneficiary is valid but may be performed by the trustee for only twenty-one years, whether or not the terms of the trust contemplate a longer duration.
  2. A trust for the care of an animal living at the settlor’s death is valid. The trust terminates when no living animal is covered by its terms.
  3. A portion of the property of a trust authorized by this section shall not be converted to any use other than its intended use unless the terms of the trust so provide or the court determines that the value of the trust property substantially exceeds the amount required.
  4. The intended use of a trust authorized by this section may be enforced by a person designated for that purpose in the terms of the trust or, if none, by a person appointed by the court

Pet trusts include the following elements:

  • Selecting a caregiver to attend to the daily needs of your pet.
  • It is recommended to name a second caregiver, in case the first can’t adequately care for the pet or decides not to do so.
  • You can include instructions for day-to-day needs as well as overall healthcare. You can be as general or as specific as you’d like.
  • You can set aside monetary distributions, on the condition that it is used for your pet’s needs.
  • The monetary distributions may include a reward/stipend for fulfilling the caregiver role.

Let’s talk about your furry friends and how we can ensure they are provided for in case something happens to you. Give me a call at 515-371-6077 or shoot me an email at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com.

GoFisch blog

Mark Twain famously said, “A classic is something everybody wants to have read, but no one wants to read.” Life insurance is a little like that. Everyone needs it, but we don’t like to talk about it much.

Life Insurance as Key Estate Planning Tool

Life insurance is an amazing estate planning tool. I cannot stress enough the importance of life insurance. I, of course, don’t sell it, so I have no economic stake here. It’s just that life insurance is generally reasonably and affordably priced, yet still so helpful with so many financial goals. Replacing a breadwinner’s earnings is one of the most commons ways it is utilized. But, it can also provide liquid assets for a small business when a key partner dies. Life insurance can also cover costs that you might forget about, like funeral costs or unpaid taxes. While there are many advantages to life insurance, and you most definitely need it, life insurance can also create estate planning issues.

Three Estate Planning Issues Life Insurance May Create

The major issue created by life insurance is that of the “sudden windfall” to your beneficiary. Do you really want, say, your 19-year-old to inherit several hundred thousand dollars at once? Even oldsters with experience managing finances may find a huge influx of cash to be overwhelming.

Another issue to consider: does your beneficiary receive government benefits? If so, proceeds from your life insurance policy might make your beneficiary ineligible for further benefits. By the way, don’t think that those receiving government aid are all elderly. Quite the opposite! A vast majority of Medicaid recipients are under age 44. Regardless of age, any beneficiary on Medicaid, or similar government aid program, is at risk of losing benefits without careful estate planning.

Finally, for high-net-worth (HNW) individuals and families, there is the issue of the federal estate tax. Everything owned in your name at death is included in your estate for estate tax purposes. Yes, that includes the death benefit proceeds of your life insurance policy. Considering that many policies carry quite hefty death benefits (several hundred thousand dollars, or more, not being unusual), this is definitely something for those with HNW to carefully consider.

In Trusts we Trust

I’ve explained trusts generally before. A quick primer: in simplest terms, a trust is a legal agreement between three parties: grantor, trustee, and beneficiary. This allows a third party (the trustee) to hold assets for a beneficiary (or beneficiaries).

There are a nearly infinite variety of trusts. One type of trust is an irrevocable life insurance trust or ILIT.

So, what IS an Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust?

Think of an ILIT as an “imaginary container,” which owns your life insurance policy for you. This provides several benefits. An ILIT removes the life insurance from your estate, i.e., lowers estate tax liability. Like other trusts, an ILIT allows you to decide how, when, and even why your named beneficiary receives life insurance proceeds.

Wait, what was that about the three parties?

The grantor is you, the purchaser of life insurance.

The trustee can be anyone you, as grantor, chooses — an individual(s) or a qualified corporate trustee (like the trust department at your bank). But, note a major difference between an ILIT and other kinds of trusts – with a large number of other trusts, you can name yourself as trustee. With an ILIT, you wouldn’t want to do so, because the IRS may then determine that life insurance really hasn’t left your estate.

Who can be a beneficiary of an ILIT?

Most often, spouses, children, and/or grandchildren are the named beneficiaries of an ILIT. But really, it can be any individual(s) you, as grantor, choose.

Your beneficiary and your life insurance proceeds

The conditions under which a beneficiary receives distributions from an ILIT is up to you. You can, for example, specify that your beneficiary receives monthly or annual distributions. You can decide the amounts. You may even dictate that your beneficiary receives distributions when s/he reaches milestones which you choose. For example, you can provide for a large(r) distribution when a beneficiary reaches a certain age, graduates from college or post-graduate program, buys a first home, marries, or has a child. Or, really, just about any other condition or event that you decide is appropriate.

You also have the option to build in flexibility, so that your trustee has the discretion to provide distributions when your beneficiary needs it for a special purpose, like pursuing higher education, starting a business, making an investment, and so on.

And, of course, if your beneficiary is receiving government benefits, an ILIT can account for that, as well.

Good gosh, is there anything an ILIT CAN’T DO?

Once again, an ILIT is irrevocable. While an ILIT provides a great deal of flexibility, there’s one action for certain you can’t take — you cannot transfer a policy owned by an ILIT into your own name. So, if you think that someday you may need to access the policy’s cash value for your own purposes, you probably shouldn’t set up an ILIT.

Options for “ending” an ILIT

Now, I suppose, there’s nothing requiring you to continue making insurance payments into your ILIT. Depending on the kind of policy you have, your policy may lapse as soon as you miss your premium payment. Or, if your policy has cash value, these funds may be used to pay premiums until all the accumulated cash is exhausted. So, that’s an option for “ending” an ILIT.

I bet you have some questions. Let’s talk!

An ILIT can provide you, your loved ones, and your estate with significant benefits. To learn more, contact me at my email, gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com, for a free consultation, without obligation. You can also give me a call at 515-371-6077.


*Yes, you’re right – ILIT is really not a word, but an acronym. You caught me. It’s just that Legal Word of the Day sounds more exciting than Legal Acronym of the Day. Also, congratulations to you for being the kind of person who reads footnotes.

**In 2019 an individual must have an estate of more than about $11.18 million, and a married couple an estate of more than $22.8 million, before they need to worry about federal estate taxes.