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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).

GoFisch book club with coffee mug

It’s not hard to find books about estate planning, but if I’m being honest most are nonfiction guides and most are kind of dry and dull. Sure, they can act as a solid primer for what you may want to know about estate planning, but they do not make for cozy, wintery weekend reads. But it’s much easier, less complicated, and concise to work with an estate planning attorney who can tailor information to your needs.

To spare you from books you’ll hate, I try to recommend reads for the GoFisch Book Club that touch on my practice areas—estate planning, charitable giving, and nonprofits—that are also engaging. Kicking off 2020, I’m adding “The Last Will and Testament of Henry Hoffman” by John Tesarsch to the GoFisch bookshelf.

After their eccentric (or reclusive, depending on how you see it) father commits suicide, three adult siblings are left to reckon with the father’s will that leaves his full estate to an unknown woman. Secrets unravel and the strings of grievances and grief intertwine as the siblings come apart fighting over their inheritance. Without disclosing any spoilers, this is more of a family drama than a legal one, but the bits and pieces of will contests serve as a warning sign that should hopefully inspire all readers to get their ducks in a row. Indeed, while largely set in Australia, this familial breakdown and conflict over competing legal documents could happen almost anywhere.

Having practiced as a barrister in Australia, Tesarsch knows a thing or two about how estate planning can leave a lasting legacy. . . and a contested will can cause immense familial conflict.

What titles would you like to see me add to the GoFisch Book Club? I would love to hear what you’re reading. Shoot me an email, Facebook message, tweet, or Instagram DM to let me know.

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. 

stop hand on sign

Based on every statistic I’ve seen, the majority of Americans don’t want anything to do with estate planning or the perceived headaches that come with it. However, making excuses to avoid investing in a valuable legal set of documents (that comes with numerous benefits) will do nothing to cement your legacy and intent for transfer of assets.

Here are some of the excuses I’ve heard from people about why they don’t have an estate plan:

  • “I don’t have any assets, and just a whole bunch of debt.”
  • “Isn’t that just for rich, older people?”
  • “I don’t need an estate plan my wife and kids are going to inherit everything I own.”
  • “I’m super healthy, so I don’t think I would ever need a health care power of attorney.”
  • “My spouse can take care of it.”
  • “Getting a will made for myself is too expensive and time consuming.”
  • “If I talk too much about it, I might jinx myself.”

Yet, everyone over 18-years old, regardless of age, debts, assets, and marital status should have an estate plan in place. (Here are the six “must have” estate planning documents you can focus on initially.) In the beginning it may feel uncomfortable talking about the details of your estate plan—that’s normal. But, there is deep and lasting peace of mind in knowing that there is a plan in place in the event of your incapacitation or untimely death, which far outweighs any discomfort.

So, cast off all excuses by embracing the benefits of having a strong estate plan in place. The benefits include, but are certainly not limited to, peace of mind, financial security for your family, established guardianships for your children, reducing taxes, fees, and costs, and saving your family and friends untold time, trouble, and heartbreak.

Have questions? Need more information?

A great place to start is the Estate Plan Questionnaire. Of course, 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.

slayer rule

In honor of Halloween, I thought it appropriate to explain the ominous-sounding principle of the slayer rule. [Cue a full moon, bats, and a high-pitched cackle here.]

It’s a plot you may come across in murder novels or movies: someone kills someone else in order to inherit money, a house, artwork, or anything else of assumed value. Or, in some cases, the intent might not specifically be an inheritance, but nevertheless, the “slayer” will inherit as a result of the other’s death.

This scheme hits at very core of what most people think is unfair and unjust–why should someone who cuts another’s life short be entitled to benefit from their criminal act? This is why most states have adopted “slayer statutes.”

For example, Iowa adopted such a law (Iowa Code § 633.535) in 1987. It says primarily:

A person who intentionally and unjustifiably causes or procures the death of another shall not receive any property, benefit, or other interest by reason of the death as an heir, distributee, beneficiary, appointee, or in any other capacity whether the property, benefit, or other interest passed under any form of title registration, testamentary or nontestamentary instrument, intestacy, renunciation, or any other circumstance. The property, benefit, or other interest shall pass as if the person causing death died before the decedent.

Note that states differ as to specific provisions and different factors like considerations of an insanity defense, and whether or not a slayer’s heirs are also disinherited. The information in the blog post is meant to speak generally. For slayer rule specifics, it’s important to consult with an experienced attorney in the jurisdiction in question.

Main Principles of the Slayer Rule

Generally speaking, the principle of the rule is that an estate plan beneficiary cannot inherit any property, fiduciary appointment, or power of appointment from a testator who the beneficiary intentionally and feloniously kills. The rule also applies if the beneficiary kills someone else (besides the testator) who had to die before they could inherit. In the case of an estate planning document (like a will), the entire will is interpreted by the court as if the slayer died before the testator. (This causes the gifts to said slayer-beneficiary to lapse.)

What if there is no will? The slayer rule still applies. So in the case of non-probate transfers (like a trust or a checking account with a beneficiary designation) the slayer could not inherit. The same goes if the slayer is an heir at law set to inherit under the state’s intestacy laws.

What Kind of Killing Triggers the Slayer Rule?

Typically the killing must be: 1) intentional; 2) felonious; and 3) without legal justification, like valid self-defense. Murder and some forms of manslaughter (such as voluntary manslaughter) tend to fulfill these requirements. Negligent homicide and involuntary manslaughter typically won’t qualify, as the slayer lacks the required element of intent.

For example, let’s say Anna has a son named Billy. Anna’s husband (Billy’s father) had passed away previously and Billy was set to inherit his mother’s entire estate under her will. Billy loved his mom and liked to make sure she still got out and did fun things in her older age. One night Anna and Billy go out to dinner and order some wine. Billy drinks a bit too much, but because his mother’s eyesight is impaired, Billy still chooses to drive his mother home even though he’s impaired. The car crashes and Anna, unfortunately, dies as a result, but Billy lives. Even if drunk driving is a felony in the jurisdiction, Billy lacked the intent element as there’s no evidence that shows he intended to kill Anna. Thus, the slayer statute would not prohibit Billy from inheriting Anna’s estate.

Does There Have to be a Trial and a Conviction?

For the slayer rule to come into play, there doesn’t need to be a criminal trial or a criminal conviction. It is enough for a civil litigation court to find the slayer responsible for the other’s death by a preponderance of the evidence. Interestingly enough, even if an alleged slayer is acquitted of a crime, it does not stop the civil court from applying the slayer rule and barring the inheritance.

That said, if there is a final, unappealable criminal conviction finding the killing to be intentional and felonious, it would establish all the requirements of the slayer rule. There would be no other need for other proof because such a criminal conviction requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

 Smart Estate Planning 

Of course, the odds that the slayer rule will apply to most of our estates is (thankfully) extremely rare. But it’s analogous to a more common situation — the beneficiary dying before the testator. An issue that then complicates donative intent is if the testator fails to or doesn’t have time to update their estate plan and there’s no remainder (or back-up) beneficiary to inherit instead. When working with an experienced estate planner it’s a wise idea to name secondary beneficiaries, as well as “back-up” will executors or trust trustees. That way distribution or administration of your hard-earned assets is not left up to the court.

Questions about the slayer rule or other somewhat obscure estate planning laws? Need to get started on your estate plan? Don’t hesitate to contact me for a free consult!

famous hat

It’s National Estate Planning Week and while it doesn’t involve costumes or gourds full of candy, celebrating can still be fun. Which brings us to these examples of “unique” (i.e. over the top, kooky, crazy, or weird) estate plan provisions of the rich and famous. In the past we’ve highlighted the unfortunate circumstances of celebrities who died without a valid estate plan dictating to whom they want their assets to go. The lesson there? Don’t leave it up to others what should happen with your property!

Today’s lesson? Your estate plan is unique and you can employ different planning strategies and tools to make whatever (legal) requests and bequests about your estate you wish…even if they’re a little different.

Gene Roddenberry, Creator of Star Trek

Roddenberry created the original Star Trek television series and was obsessed with space. So, it was actually fitting he requested a celestial burial. He passed away in 1991 and his request for a disposition of his final remains in deep space was fulfilled in 1997. Roddenberry was cremated and a part of his remains was put on a rocket and launched into orbit. His wife Majel, who played Christine Chapel in the original Star Trek and died in 2008, also elected for a space burial with the same company (Celetis).

Harry Houdini, Magician

Famous magician Houdini conducted séances during his life and wanted his wife, Bess, to continue the practice upon his own death. A clause in Houdini’s (otherwise “normal”) will requested his wife conduct an annual “session” with the afterlife. Houdini had his wife memorize a secret “code” that he thought would use identification to prove communication from the “other side.” She honored the request for 10 years on Halloween, the anniversary of her husband’s death.

magic in hand

Oprah, Media Mogul

Oprah is the living (thank goodness, let’s not imagine a world without Oprah in it) spokesperson of the benefits of an animal care trust! Reportedly, Oprah has established a trust funded with $30 million for her pet dogs, so that they will continue to have a high level of treatment and care. Sure, a cool $30 mil is more than you or I will ever see in our lifetimes, but compared to Oprah’s total estate it’s just a drop in the bucket. Plus, she plans to give the bulk of her $3 billion estate to charitable causes! “When I’m gone, everything that I have is going to go to charity because I don’t have children. And I believe that that’s what you should do,” she said. “To whom much is given, much should be given back.”

Janis Joplin, Rock Singer-Songwriter

The infamous Joplin tragically passed at the age of 27 in 1970 from a drug overdose. Joplin carried her nonstop party spirit into her will where she left behind $2,500 (which is like the 2018 equivalent of $16,000) for her best friends to have a rocking wake party. A few weeks after her death, the party was indeed thrown in California.

Adam Yauch, Singer, Beastie Boys Co-Founder

The talented artist’s will set the record straight for the future of his music. He provided limitations in the use of his likeness and his music with the provision: “in no event may my image or name or any music or any artistic property created by me be used for advertising purposes.” (Whether or not this request is enforceable, regarding a legal difference between publicity rights and copyrights is whole other story.)

casette tape

William Randolf Hearst, Publisher

Apparently there were rumors circulating that the publishing powerhouse/politician who died in 1951 had fathered illegitimate children. He unequivocally denied this even in his last will and testament, offering anyone who could prove such would inherit $1: “that he or she is a child of mine . . . the sum of one dollar. I hereby declare that any such asserted claim . . . would be utterly false.” No claims came forward alleging paternity, so there must have been something true behind the provision!

Benjamin Franklin, Founding Father/Politician

Franklin devised a picture frame to his daughter containing more than 400 diamonds. He left the frame (and thus the gems) to his daughter Sarah under the express provision that she “not engage the expensive, vain and useless pastime of wearing jewels.” He apparently didn’t want her to remove the diamonds from the frame…apparently the request was not honored.

Just like these interesting wills, your estate plan is entirely your own. You can elect to pass your assets on to whomever you wish including your pets, kids, and favorite charities. But, you can’t record these requests until you execute an estate plan! (Remember, a will is one of the multiple documents found in an estate plan.) Get started with my free Estate Plan Questionnaire and contact me for a free consult!

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!

real estate keys to house

It’s National Estate Planning Week (I know you’re as excited about it as we are!) which is a good excuse to bring up a hypothetical scenario: what happens, in terms of estate planning, if either the buyer or seller in a sale of real estate (like a house or land) dies before the closing?

It’s a situation that is fairly improbable, but it can and does happen. Plus, it’s good to explore just in case you ever find yourself dealing with this as the executor of a loved one’s estate.

Let’s say that you’re buying a house and you’ve already executed the contract (a purchase agreement) with the seller. Before the closing date, the seller passed away. What happens to the property? How does it fit into the seller’s estate plan? What is the executor responsible for? It’s easy to see how this can be a complicated conundrum.

Equitable and Legal Title

At this point, after the purchase agreement is drawn up and before the closing, you as the buyer hold an equitable title in the real property (the house). Equitable title is legal parlance meaning here that the buyer has a right to obtain full ownership of a property (or property interest). Equitable title comes with certain rights. For example, the seller can’t sell the property to a third party or subject the property to an encumbrance or a lien that would interfere with the buyer’s property interest.

Legal title, in comparison, is actual ownership of the land. In the period between the sale agreement and the closing, the seller holds the legal title to the property being sold. Legal title transfers to the buyer when the final payment is made (typically this is done at the closing or through an escrow process when the buyer receives the property deed in exchange for the payments made).

Like our hypothetical, if the seller dies during this point in the sales process this legal title in the property is a part of the seller’s estate. That means the seller’s estate can still sell the property (and is contracted to do so), collect the profit from the sale, and then disperse the profits as part of the decedent’s total gross estate to the beneficiaries.

What About the Seller’s Heirs?

The seller’s heirs-at-law and/or estate plan beneficiaries may have expected to inherit the house. But, if the seller entered into a valid contract for sale before they died, the estate’s executor is bound to honor the contract.

Note that sometimes there are required waiting periods where the executor must wait before executing documents for the estate (such as the sale of real estate). So, as the buyer, you can anticipate a reasonable time delay (think 30 days) compared to the schedule set out in the purchase agreement.

Of course, there are many rules of real estate and contract law that come into play, but in terms of property and how it plays into the estate planning process, these are the basics!

Enlist an Estate Planning Attorney to Help Everything Run Smoothly

If you do find yourself in the position of being the executor of a seller’s estate and that seller died in the midst of a real estate sale, don’t hesitate to enlist the expertise of an estate planner to help guide you how to best accommodate and fulfill your fiduciary duties.

On a related point, if you sell your house or purchase a new property, it may necessitate updates to your estate plan! Review your plan and then schedule a free consult to ensure all of your assets are properly accounted for in your plan.

Any questions about your specific estate planning situation? Contact GFLF at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com or by phone,515-371-6077.

Halloween pumpkin

What makes a will valid? To begin, you are asking the entirely wrong question! [Cue evil sounding mwahahahaha.]

You must ask a more specific question what makes a will valid in Iowa. After all, every state can and does have different laws for a will’s validity, as well as for probate, trusts, and so on.

Iowa law has several requirements (sometimes called formalities) which must be present for a will to be legal and binding. If you miss even one formality–yes, even one!–you run the risk of your will being declared “dead.” Forever dead and invalid…which sounds like a nightmare for your loved ones.

In Writing (Can Be Blood or Ink)

ink and paper

Iowa law requires a will to be in writing. That means any oral statement of the decedent doesn’t count. This is true even if the oral statement(s) relate(s) directly to naming people who should inherit specific property. (Note that there’s a slight, teeny tiny exception to this for gifts causa mortis. But, these are super specific, situational, limited, and rare.)

Even a statement about passing of property recorded by audio or video cannot constitute a valid will.

Testatrix or Treat?

The person making the will must sign it, or direct some other person to sign the will in his or her presence. Lawyers call the person who makes the will either a testator (male) or testatrix (female).

Two Witnesses to Tell the Tale

Two witnesses to the will’s signing are also required. The person making the will, in the presence of the two people acting as witnesses, must declare the document is his/her will and request the two people to sign the document as witnesses. Then the witnesses must sign in the presence of each other, and in the presence of the testator/testatrix.

two people signing

Bearing Witness

There are also standards for being a qualified witness. A witness must be at least 16 years old and be mentally competent. A person who receives property under terms of the will may be a witness, but that person will have to forfeit any amount in excess of what s/he would receive if there were no will.

Are You Competent?

A will is valid only if the person making the will has sufficient competency at the time the will is made. In this situation, “competency” has two prongs: the testator must be of full age AND sound mind.

Full age simply means legal majority, which is age 18 (or 17 and married).

Is your mind sound?

All I can imagine with the phrase “sound mind” is the mad scientist saying “brainssss, brainsss!” But, is “sound mind” a real thing? Yes!

glass brain

A testator must indeed be of sound mind. The testator/testatrix has sufficient mental capacity if s/he:

  1. understands the nature of the instrument s/he is executing;
  2. knows and understands the nature and extent of his or her property;
  3. remembers the natural objects of his or her bounty; and
  4. knows the distribution s/he wants to make.

If s/he is unable to meet any one of these tests she cannot make a valid will. The mental capacity must exist at the actual time of the making of the will.

Did you say “natural objects of bounty?”

The natural objects of his or her bounty is a fancy legal phrase. Essentially this refers to a spouse and children, if any, or other close family members; the maker of the will should generally know and recognize his or her natural heirs.

Low Standards

This test of mental capacity is not a particularly high standard to meet. The Iowa Supreme Court declared:

“Ability to transact business, generally, is not essential to testamentary capacity. Advanced age, failure of memory, senile dementia not shown to render the testatrix of insufficient mental capacity to understand the nature of the act, to recollect the extent of her property and the natural objects of her bounty and their claims upon her, and to comprehend the manner in which she wishes her property distributed, childishness, mental weakness, and old age are not, of themselves, sufficient to deprive her of testamentary capacity.” Walters v. Heaton, 271 N.W. 310, 313 (Iowa 1937). (Note that the court’s decision was related to a female, hence the she/her, but, this standard undoubtedly applies to all will-makers in Iowa!)


Are you frightened to death of making a mistake with your will? Never fear! A qualified attorney can help guide you around the sticky spiderwebs and swamps of estate law. Email me at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com or call me on my cell at 515-371-6077. I’d be happy to offer you a one-hour free consultation!