Monday, April 6, 2015

Legacy - A Power We All Have

The story was secondhand, told to me by my husband. Overseeing the nightly bath vs. shower ritual of our children, ages 6 and 4, he was the parent on-duty.  It had been a long day of Spring Break play, inevitable growth spurts, and the competitive behavior of siblings.  Quickly the kids launched into an argument over who was going to use their shower/bath first:

Daughter: I said it first, I get a bath....NOW!!!!

Son: Not fair!  You take fooooooorrrrrrrevvvvvvver in the bath.  I want a quick shower!

Daughter: [with a smirk spreading across her face], I know, let's do a coin toss! 

For the reader, she has an uncanny ability to win these games of chance, something that has not gone unnoticed by our son.

Son; Okay [said with a bit of distrust].

Up went the coin, supplied by dad.  It landed heads up, just as our daughter had predicted.

Son: Fine, take your God Damn bath!

He stomped off to our master bath for a shower on his own. At this point in the story, my husband is laughing.  After quoting our son's proper use of GD, he said, "and he sounded just like you -- tone, inflection -- it was you! Then with a slight frown of sadness he added, " He sounded just like your mom too."  My mom died just over a year ago, but part of her still lives on in what she passed on to me, and now to me to my children. That is the power of legacy.

From phrases we use, to foods we prepare, to acts of charity -- our children, young and old, model the behavior of their elders.  This is why you can make a difference in the world of nonprofits without having millions.  It is a point I make in my book, Middle Class Philanthropist: How anyone can leave a legacy.  The point is reiterated in this piece by Adrian Hirsch for In Register Magazine about making a difference without millions.

As Spring finally warms the frozen earth of our home town of Madison, Wisconsin we have daffodils blooming in our front yard.  On our kitchen counter is the 2015 version of the Easter Bunny Cake we will take to a gathering later today. Some version of this cake has been present for me every Easter since 1974, when I was not quite one year old.  When my mom's health declined the baking baton was passed on to me.  One day the baton will pass on to one or both of my children.  What else can I pass on to them?  With this post I have decided to give 1% of my life insurance policy to my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin. Being the first in my immediate family to attain a college degree (and then a masters followed by a law degree), the immense value of our public universities is brilliantly apparently to me.  Making this designation will model admiration for quality public universities to my children.

That is the power of a legacy.  How will you use your power?

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Welcome Sharon!: Modern Day Grave Robbers

Over the past year I have grown accustomed to flipping through the mail at home and seeing at least one mailing addressed to my mother, at our home address rather than the 1121 Valley Stream Drive of my childhood.  She, my mother, left this earthly world February 16th of 2014, but her junk mail lives on.  Most of the time I mark the enveloped "deceased", leaving it for the carrier to cart off the next day, hoping the life insurance company or peddler of products to keep seniors in their homes will update their mailing lifts.  Sharon no longer needs their services.

And then one day a mailing caught my attention, it was from a huge on-line bank.  Tearing it open the warning I issue to clients here in my legal office struck home - identity theft of the dead.  Sharon -- Welcome to [insert Bank Name here]!  Here are the account numbers for your new 29 savings accounts!  A whirlwind of emotions ensued.  Sadness for a mother who was gone from my life. Frustration for yet another task falling onto my plate, she was a widow, my father died in 2009, and I was her only child.  And anger at the thieves who were attempting to steal her identity.  After a few clamming breaths, I called the bank and they quickly closed the accounts with the information I provided.

Yes, identify theft of the dead is a thing.  And not only just a thing, but a growing phenomenon.  Why on earth would a thief want a deceased person's identity?  Two main reasons come to mind.  One is the quick shopping fix they can run up with credit cards, etc., before the grieving family recognizes the theft.  And two, tax fraud.  Apparently there are people out there who spend their days (and nights) filing fraudulent tax returns for the recently deceased.  They will make up numbers for federal and state returns, file them with the appropriate authority, and have refunds deposited into on-line banking accounts they have fraudulently opened. Government agencies are under pressure to process returns before they can verify the reported numbers with the 1099s submitted by entities that paid out funds, such as employers, banks, and the like.  Voila, grave robbers for modern times.

How did theses folks get enough personal information to open bank accounts for my mom?  I am not sure.  I have heard that the Social Security Administration has a Master Death List of Social Security Numbers of the deceased.  Something comes up with a Google search, but I haven't the time to explore it more.  If it is true, my anger will probably boil over -- the banner claims its purpose is to thwart identity theft. There are all of those on-line family trees with dates of births and mother's maiden names.  And tricks of the trade that are well-beyond my luddite ways.

From my vantage point behind the desk of an estate planning attorney, I'd offer the following common sense moves if you wish to decrease the risk of a thief running off with your identity, or that of a loved one, after you depart the pale blue dot we call home.

  • Review your will, trust (if you have one), powers of attorney for health care, and powers of attorney for finance to see if they contain your Social Security Number.  If so, create new documents and shred the old.  This month alone I had three new clients with this very problem -- SSN included in their dated estate plans;
  • If a loved one has died and you are the Personal Representative / Executor, write a letter to the three credit bureaus stating the person has died, provide the SSN, death certificate, and paperwork putting you in charge;
  • After the estate is closed, shred all statements for banks, credit unions, retirement accounts, etc.
Now I know that I can depress people.  So much so that I keep a box of Frango Mints in my office for clients, who often need a pick-me-up after planning what will go where upon their death, or what would happen if that person predeceased, etc.  While I cannot offer you a chocolate here, I can share a link to a lovely song I associated with that pale blue dot we call home, it is a favorite of mine, commonly heard around Earth Day, Blue Boat Home. Lyrics can be read here.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Boys

Somehow I held back the tears, the ones brimming in my eyes, sobs wanting to escape my throat. Somehow I held back, somehow I keep calling -- can you help me find a home for The Boys?  It was January 2014, what locals here in Wisconsin will remember as Polar Vortex season, and my mother was dying.  What would happen to The Boys, her kitty cats?  With three cats of our own, two of which were seniors, plus two young children and a dual self-employed couple -- our home was not a viable option.

Sitting in my car, with illumination from the lamp post in the parking lot of the building I was scheduled to speak at in less than 30 minutes. Channeling my estate planning attorney self, quieting the daughter inside, I kept calling.   Our local shelter, a local feral cat rescue, our family vet.  The answer over and over, sorry we cannot help.

It was my family vet that told me, ever so gently, that if The Boys went to our county animal rescue they would likely be put down after a week.  Two twelve year old males, both with health issues. Adoption was unlikely, especially if they were to be kept together.  My mother was fading in hospice care, and I was desperate not to deliver her beloved cats to kitty death row.  I could not change my mother's fate, but I could help the two cats my parents had both adored in life.

It was our cat sitter, who I refer to as Saint Angela, that opened her heart and home to The Boys. And I opened my wallet, offering to help her each and every month to cover medical and medication bills for their lifetime. Pet lovers -- have you ever asked what will happen to your furry four-legged friends?  Whether your animal companions are dogs, cats, birds, snakes, or backyard chickens -- who will be there for them?  How will their vet bills, food, grooming, etc. be paid for?

Looking back at my mother's situation, I would have made two recommendations.  First, have a distinct paragraph in her power of attorney for finance related to expenditures for her pets.  A power of attorney allowed me to act for her in a financial capacity, and pets are actually someone's property. Remember, one may be sick for an extended time, likely moving to a facility where pets are not allowed.  Second, her will could have contained a pet trust -- a small trust, created at death, to hold both the animals and a small amount of cash from which to pay future expenses.   

Typical mass-produced estate planning materials talk about generation skipping taxes, the benefits of living revocable trusts, how to create a foundation. In reality, most of those issues are not a concern for middle class Americans.  Yet, as of 2012, 62 percent of households had at least one pet, making planning for your pets care an important issue to address.  Even a simple plan would be better than nothing.   Survey friends and family about who would be willing to open their heart and home. Display your pet's veterinarian's phone number, and note any special foods or medications a pet is prescribed. An ounce of planning today will make a huge difference if and when your pet needs a new home because you are no longer able to provide one.

aka The Boys

Friday, September 12, 2014

Nominating a New Estate Planning Term - Goat Rodeo

So, you’re telling me I am better off just managing this Goat Rodeo?  A rhetorical question posed by a client some months ago in follow-up to our one hour discussion about the ins and outs of the 1986 trust the client's parents had created.  Yes, that is one way to put it. This may go down as my most humorous and enjoyable client meeting of 2014. Goat Rodeo -- what a perfect way to summarize the state of affairs.

If you are an adult child, chances are one day you may manage the "Goat Rodeo" of your parents’ estate.  There may be a trust, a will, nothing at all.  Documents may have been written 25 years earlier, designed and mandated to follow outdated tax codes.  No will?  No worries, a distribution plan is embedded in the state statutes where your parents lived/died.  You will quickly learns the ins and outs of this plan.  If you have sibling, prepare yourself for a flash back to the fights you had as tweens (was that even a word when you were a tween, most likely not).  Bottom line -- accept today that you will one day manage a "Goat Rodeo", and then go on about your life.  Your parents’ estate plan is their estate plan.  It is not yours to create, change, tweak -- just manage it, Goat Rodeo or not. For now, enjoy the time you have with your parents - time passes quickly.

Image taken by author at a petting zoo, not a Goat Rodeo

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

'Tis A Gift To Be Simple.....And When It Is Not.

It never fails.  New clients walk into my office and sit down for our first meeting of the estate planning process.  Once the initial hellos are finished and the legal services agreement reviewed and signed, we get down to business.  Nine times out of ten I hear "oh, this will be simple, we are a solid middle class family." Instantly this Shaker song pops into my mind (one I adore and delight in signing at our UU church).

The song makes me smile, such a happy little ditty.  The client(s) is smiling, thinking this will be simple because they do not have tons of assets, just the normal amount of a normal person or couple here in the heart of the Midwest.

A glance at their questionnaire and the tune fades from my mind, replaced by something for chaotic. Something more ominous.  Something that is anything but simple. Something along these lines:

Why the change in background music?  It's simple really.  Money is not what makes estate planning complex, life circumstances make it simple or complex.

Me: I see it is a second marriage for both of you, and that there are three children from one side and two from the other.  Correct?

Client: Why yes, is that a problem?

Me: Not a problem, but certainly not simple.


Me: You've been together for 18 years, never married, she has a son from a prior marriage.  Correct?

Client: Yes, is that a problem?

Me: Not a problem, but we have some issues to explore.

These are what estate planners call Blended Families, and they are not as easy to plan for as the squares in the Brady Bunch boxes might make it appear.  They are complex situations.  What happens when the first spouse dies?  It passes to the survivor, but then where?  Locking in plan to the kids requires a trust most likely, and with that, simple burst like a balloon on a 98 degree day.

Sadly, single with no children does not guarantee simplicity either.

Me: Your questionnaire indicates that you wish to leave your entire estate to eight nieces and nephews for their college education.  And you want to make sure expenses for your three poodles are paid for after your death.  Correct?

Client: Yes, is that hard to do?

Me: Not necessarily hard, but a simple will cannot accomplish these goals.  You'll need a will with trusts -- plural, one for the college funds and one for the dogs.

Who is simple might you wonder?

Me: I see that you are married with two adult children.  There is a combined net work of $3.7 million.  You want everything to go to the surviving spouse, and upon his/her death, equally to the children.  Correct?

Client: Yes, does the net worth create problems?

Me: No, you are under the federal estate tax and it appears that a simple will might be all you need.

Life -- it is always throwing us for a loop.

Monday, July 7, 2014

What Do You Mean She Did Not Survive? Survivorship in the World of Estate Planning

Without fail, every week or so a client will give me the look.  Akin to Gary Coleman on Different Strokes, what I call "the Wathcha' Talkin' About Willis? face.  You remember, this one:

Behind the look is an air of confusion, annoyance and frustration.  These are the type of conversations that place unfavorable adjectives in front of the title lawyer.  Case in point:

Client: My wife died on Sunday, her sister died Thursday, so my wife outlived her and is the beneficiary of the sister's IRA.

Attorney: Well, your wife died after her sister, but she may not have actually survived her, it depends.

Client: [intent pause, brow wrinkles, and they are clearly holding back the statement -- now I thought you were suppose to be smart, you went to law school, and now your tellin' me that my wife did not survive her sister, come on, pay attention] -- what? is the question they toss my way.

Attorney: In the world of estate planning we have a concept called survivorship, it requires an heir to outlive the decedent by a certain amount of time in order to actually live long enough to inherit.  If they die too soon, they are considered to have predeceased and the asset passes as though they had died before the decedent.

Client: what?

Attorney: the thought is that you want your assets to pass to another person, but control what happens if they die before you.....or too soon after you.

Client: okay, so how long did my wife have to outlive her sister?

Attorney: that depends on the situation.

Client: Are you kidding me! Can't you give me a firm answer?

Attorney: No.  In Wisconsin the statutes require an heir to outlive the decedent by 120 hours (5 days) before inheriting, unless a will sets a different time frame such as 30, 60 or 90 days.  But this is an IRA, which is non-probate property, meaning the contract with the financial services company controls.  We need to know, under the contract, what time frame applies.  Do you have a copy of the contract?

Client: No, why would I, it belonged to her sister.

Attorney: Can you get one from the company -- you are a suspected heir since you survived your wife.

Client: [Head falls into their hands] -- why does this have to be so hard?

Attorney: I'm sorry that it is, but I can try to make this easier for you. There is a reason I keep Frango Mints in the waiting room, everyone needs a treat after talking with a lawyer about illness, death and taxes.

Lessons learned: 1) dying second does not necessarily mean a person stands to inherit under a will or beneficiary form.  Timing will likely play a key role.  Did the 2nd to die live long enough after the 1st to actually inherit.  2) hard copies of financial agreements can save countless hours for loved ones left behind to sort out the path an asset will take after death.

Monday, June 9, 2014

It Was Her Wish

"Are you kidding me, it's in the Bible......follow the dying person's last wish!"  It is not often that my husband invokes the Bible, he is an atheist after all.  But when he does, he is serious, and he is expressing the fact something is ancient.  Not just some new trendy idea -- it dates back to biblical times.

We had been discussing the fallout of my mother's memorial service. Yes, such an event can have fallout. And from my vantage point of an estate planning and probate attorney, I can tell you that it happens more often than not.  But here I was, the daughter, not the attorney, in the mini-drama surrounding her final wishes. Thankfully that legal education of mine fortified my backbone, allowing me to stand tall and carry out her wishes, despite the descent of her grieving relatives.

With no uncertain terms, she had clearly expressed her wishes to me from the passenger seat of my Honda Civic.  Sick for many years, we often found ourselves with me driving her home following a hospital discharge. Both aware that her health was declining and that we are all human. Eventually her time would come.

I broached the topic with "I know you don't want to think about these types of things, but if something should happen, would you want a service like the one we did for dad?" First came the sideways glare, and then (I can quote her here) “I don't want nothin' in the god damned church in Brooklyn. I married my first husband (my dad was her second husband) there, and that is where they buried my baby....without me being there. No! I have no happy memories of that place. Do it at the church you go with with the kids, FUS. And I hate my picture, so don't do one of those silly poster boards plastered all over the place. Hmmmh” And that was that, she looked forward and we proceeded home.

Over the years I revisited the topic, wanting to make sure I knew her wishes. And the answer was always the same. Had she been a client, I would have advised her to put her wishes in writing through Wisconsin's Authorization for Final Disposition. But she was mom, and that piece of paperwork was never completed. Her final day on earth was February 16, 2014, a Sunday. The following Monday I contacted the minister at FUS and began setting in motion her plan, her wishes.

It would be a memorial service, not a funeral. It would be held at the First Unitarian Society in Madison, not the Methodist church in Brooklyn where so many other funerals for the family had occurred. It would be several months after her death, not in a few days. It would be her wishes, not the boiler plate funeral of prior generations. We all grieve in our own ways. Communications with her relatives are strained if not severed. She was my mom, and I followed her wish. My question to you dear reader, is what is your wish and who can make sure it happens? The time will come, we just do not know when.