Friday, May 31, 2019

Peonies -- Planning for the Little Things

Image by M.  Gustafson Gervasi, 2019
Peonies unfolding in the warm sun.  June is nearly here.  With it a memory dances in my mind.  June 1991 and my mother fussed about the peony plants that circled our back deck.  Delicate, vibrant, gone too quickly -- her wish was for those flowers to be there for my high school graduation party.  Mother nature granted mom her wish.  Peonies in full bloom were the backdrop for many photos that day.

All of these years later (has it really been 28 years!) those very plants still bloom in June, just in a new location.  My mother left her earthly life in February of 2014.  Despite her passing in the depths of a Wisconsin winter, I was able to transplant the peonies from the backyard of her ranch home to the flower bed in front of my ranch house.  All it took was a simple request from the new owners for me to return when the soil had thawed.

With the plethora of how-to books on estate planning, probate, trusts, and in general getting your "stuff in order" a huge hole exists.  Planning for the items with no monetary value, but a wealth of love and comfort:

  • the Swedish Meatball recipe from your grandmother;
  • record collections now gathering dust, but once filled a childhood home with music;
  • inexpensive jewelry that made dress up in the 1970s oh so much fun;
  • your late father's teddy bear from 1941; and
  • peonies -- as well as other perennials.
Drawing from my own life, and that of clients I have counseled, don't overlook planning for the little things that make up your one grand and special life.

Monday, February 25, 2019

What I've Been Reading: The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware



My workdays are spent at the office, talking with clients about illness, death and taxes.  My evenings and weekends usually allow some downtime for me to indulge my inner bookworm.  Recently I took a break from the Nordic Noir series I've been reading and picked up a book recommended by a dear friend, The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware.

The book opens with an introduction to Hal, a young women in her early 20s scraping out a living reading tarot cards on a pier in Brighton, England.  We learn that her mother, and only family, was killed in a hit and run accident when Hal was barely 18.  She is alone, broke, and avoiding a loan shark she now knows was a mistake.  And then a letter arrives along with her growing bills.  An attorney from Penzance, England wrote, informing her that she is an heir to her late grandmother's estate.  An heir?  Hal's maternal grandparents were dead, and she had no clue who her father was.  And so the mystery begins as Hal hops a train to figure out if this is a valid bequest and the answer to her money troubles.  The book is just the right mixture of mystery, suspense, and an ending with a twist. 

Even on weekends and evenings I am reading about probate matters!  This book set up the stage with just enough knowledge to know a drama would unfold based on the will, but was not weighted down with the ins and outs of estate planning or probate.  When I tweeted to Ruth Ware about finishing the book she was pleased that I did not detect an egregious errors.  After all, I'm licensed in Wisconsin....not England!

As Spring slowly makes it way into our weather forecast, and you begin packing suitcases for Spring Break vacations, this may be the prefect suspense novel for your beach side or ski chalet reading.

Be well, and thank you for reading.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Series: Estate Plannings Hardest Questions

Series: Estate Plannings Hardest Questions
#6: Asking Yourself 'Who is Family?'
By Melinda Gustafson Gervasi


Every now and then I'll have a client lean in during our first meeting, where we discuss their life situation and estate planning goals, and nearly whispers "can I name someone other than my relatives?"

"Of course, estate planning is about taking control and nominating the people who are right for the job!" I proclaim.

In the various seminars I give on the topic of estate planning and probate I emphasize the need to ask yourself "who is your family?  We share our DNA and branches of a family tree with a group of people.  We also share life with a group of people; the joyous celebrations, the mundane tasks of life, and the times of despair.  Sometimes they are the same group of people, and sometimes they are two distinct groups.

Personally, I am one who has two different groups.  With the exception of my spouse and children, there are people walking the planet who share my DNA or my family tree, but they are not the ones who share in the joys and sorrows of my life.  Why the fissure?  The reason is immaterial.  What matters is asking myself, who is family beyond my spouse and children.  They are the people who leave bananas and ginger ale waiting on your counter when they learn you are getting over food poisoning while on a transatlantic flight.  They are the people who cheer your 7 year old daughter on for her first ice skating show.  They are the people who help you tear soaked carpeting out of your basement following a flood.  And they are the people you sit down with to give Thanks at the end of November.


This can be a very hard question for some people to ask themselves.  Admitting relatives are not family can sting.  But it is a vital question.  Who knows you well, who respects your wishes, who brings you support?  Those are likely the best suited people to be nominated in your estate plan.

Please remember, a blog is not legal advice.  Please seek legal counsel from an attorney in your state of residence.  Thank you for reading.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Series: Estate Plannings Hardest Questions

Series: Estate Plannings Hardest Questions
#5 - Answering 'What If They All Die?'
By Melinda Gustafson Gervasi


It begins with the question "Am I correct to assume you want all assets to pass to the surviving spouse?"

Without hesitation, both clients respond "yes."

I return with "And if both of you were to die, either together or one and the other, you want your assets to be shared equally among your children."

Again, without hesitation the clients in unison state "yes."

This time I volley with "and if a child of yours were to predecease you, would his or her share pass to any children he or she may have left?"

My question is often met with a pause and a head snapping back as though it had been slapped.  Looking at one another and then me, the clients stammer "well....well....yes, I guess that seems appropriate."  As a mother as well as a lawyer I can see the glimpse of horror in the clients' eyes; parents die first, not the children, or so it is desired.

I end with "what if neither your spouse nor any of your offspring survive you, what would happen to the estate?  Some clients do not want the state statues to control what happens to their property."

At this point, one if not both clients sit, mouth agape, stunned by the question, saying "well, we NEVER thought of that!" 

"That's my job, imagine the worse case scenario and plan accordingly." I counsel. "It's unpleasant, but important to ask because you may not want your estate to pass according to the statutes."

Nine times out of ten the clients will ask to think about it for a few days.  They could leave it all to some favorite nonprofits.  They could divide it 50/50 and let state statutes control the distribution to his and/or her surviving next of kin.  Or they could do a mixture of distributions: 50% to their surviving siblings; 25% to their faith organization; and 25% to an alumni association.  The options are endless so as the percentages add up to 100% in the end.

We shake hands as the clients leave, I smile saying I enjoyed our conversation and add "please, help yourself to chocolate....I have Frango's in the waiting area.  You deserve one after having me kill off all your loved ones in a space of an hour."  A chuckle usually follows, and nearly all clients opt for a chocolate.

It's hard, asking yourself what will happen to your estate if you are the last one standing.  Yet, it is essential if you do not want state intestacy statutes to distribute your probate estate.


Please note, a blog is NOT legal advice.  Please seek counsel from an attorney in your state for guidance on estate planning and probate for your state of residence.




Friday, September 14, 2018

Series: Estate Plannings Hardest Questions

Series: Estate Plannings Hardest Questions
#4 Where Should I Keep My Will?
By Melinda Gustafson Gervasi


"Well, let's put ink to paper and make this will legally binding" I say to a client in our final meeting.  Pens are passed around, pages are initialed, the witnessing completed. 

I slide the will into the kelly green folder each client receives to hold his or her completed forms.  The client, with eyes downcast on the desk puts the papers in order, and digests the fact they did it -- they completed or updated a will. 

Slowly the client's eyes move upward, connecting with mine, and then the question -- "now where do I keep this?"  Puzzlement clearly written across the face.

Copies of powers of attorney should hold the same legal authority as the original, however, that is not likely the case with a will.  It is very important to keep the original safe.  Many clients assume the safe deposit box is the answer.  What used to be the go-to may not be the wisest move today.  A will locked in a safe deposit box can be tricky to access once the testator has died.  I'll skip the technical hurdles that may develop and just say, personally, it's not my first choice for a will.

Many clients prefer to keep a will in their home fire box or gun safe.  This can work, however:

  • fire proof does not necessarily mean water proof (a weakness underscored by the recent historic flooding here in Southern Wisconsin);
  • thieves may walk away with your fire proof box hoping to find prescription drugs, passports, or cash -- put they may get your estate plan instead;
  • combinations need to be known by those who survive;
  • purging papers and clutter seems like a great activity, but it may result in the unassuming will being pitched into the shred box; and
  • it may take weeks for loved ones to sort through an entire home's contents to finally locate the will.
A cold Kentucky Rain -- image by Melinda Gustafson Gervasi, 2017

My will (and my spouse's will) are on file with the Dane County probate court, in a sealed enveloped assigned a file number.  When the time comes, they will be moved from one section of the courthouse to another, the probate office.  Minimal chance of destruction, theft, misplacement or unintentional destruction.  The fee in my county is $10/will......not per month or per year, just $10.


I wouldn't stop when the ink dries on the signature line, not asking the hard question, where will this will be safe until it is needed? No option is perfect for all testators (that's the fancy title you get when you sign a will).  Assess your situation, and the situation of those the will empowers to act. 

Thanks for reading, and remember a blog is not a lawyer, it does not give legal advice, it simply shares with you my thoughts as an estate planning attorney daily navigating the waters of estate planning and probate.  Please consult with an attorney in your home state (these laws are state SPECIFIC) and for current law.



Monday, August 6, 2018

Reader's Corner: The Green Burial Guidebook by Elizabeth Fournier



Recently I read The Green Burial Guidebook: everything you need to plan an affordable, environmentally friendly burial by Elizabeth Fournier.  It was a segment on WPR's Central Time that led me to this interesting book.

At a slender 150 pages, the book is a straightforward and easy read, complete with detailed notes and resources at the end.  Fournier first introduces the reader to the concept of "what is a green funeral" and then in the second half provides a guide to a green burial.  For those already familiar with the go green movement in the area of funerals, the first half of the book may be repeat information.  However, in the second half of the book Fournier takes the reader well beyond having a burial minus the coffin and vault, into various "shades of green" as she calls the spectrum of options available to making their death affordable and earth friendly.

There is detailed information for those with families that can provide preparation of a body for burial on "family land" as well as smaller, more realistic (through distance and dysfunction, many families may not be able to go as green as those who literally wash a body after death) such as carpooling visitors to a service, to using seed cards as thank you notes, to the new form of cremation - alkaine hydrolysis.

All in all this is an excellent resource for those wishing to have their death be as simple, affordable and earth friendly as possible.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Series: Estate Plannings Hardest Questions

Series: Estate Plannings Hardest Questions
By Melinda Gustafson Gervasi
#3 - Who to Name as Personal Representative

Wisconsin is my home state, meaning we use the term "Personal Representative" (hereafter "PR") instead of the more commonly known "Executor".  The role of the PR is to file a will with the court, collect the deceased person's probate assets, pay the final taxes, funeral and medical costs, and any other liabilities of the deceased.  The PR distributes the remainder to the beneficiaries as stated in the will, or if no will, follows state statute on disbursing funds.  This is an oversimplified version of the work required of a PR, but it provides the general gist of the work involved.

Knowing the type of work involved, and the fact a probate on average takes 12-18 months from start to finish, you can develop a good sense of the skill-set required by the person you nominate to by the PR.  I do not recommend a knew-jerk reaction and name your first born because s/he is the oldest or your sister because you know she'll harass you until the day you die if you do not name her.  Instead, nominate someone who is well-suited for the job. When speaking with the public or with clients I say "aim for Switzerland -- who is neutral, precise and efficient?" 


Look at your collection of family and friends.  Who:

  • does not have a "dog in the fight" -- trust me, even the most serene families can erupt in arguments over the most mundane items when a loved one dies.  It's usually not the thing, but rather who has control;
  • who is Type A -- this is where teachers, nurses, engineers, accountants and the occasional lawyer can translate their Type A behaviors into the role of PR;
  • who is going to be emotionally stable when they are: selling your car, filing a final income tax return; emptying the fridge, disposing of your medications; listing the home for sale; and balancing the monies so that dollars into the estate equal dollars out of the estate.  Not everyone has this skill set;
  • who has the time to take all this work on?; and
  • who is able to delegate work when it makes sense to do so and is needed to keep the process  moving along.
If you get through your list of friends and family and realize none listed possess the requisite skills you are not without hope.  Instead of settling for someone you know, but who is ill-equipped, consider a professional.  This is where wealth management departments of banks can be of tremendous support.  My will lists a local bank to act as PR if my husband cannot.  I have many lovely friends and limited family, but the complexity of our estate would be more efficiently handled by a professional fiduciary.  That might be hard to admit, but sometimes the best course to take is not the easiest.

Thanks for reading, and remember -- a blog is not legal advice.  Please consult an attorney in your home state for advice on current laws related to estate planning.