Friday, January 8, 2021

Talking to Children About Death -- What I've Been Reading

Talking to Children About Death -- What I've Been Reading 

By Melinda Gustafson Gervasi

January 8, 2021

Grief during the current pandemic is unlike anything most of us have experienced during our lifetimes. Gathering, hugs, sharing a meal are not recommended. Instead Zoom Memorial Services or limited attendance at the grave site puts a twist on our grieving process. In the middle of it all, we are raising children. Inevitably the adults will need to talk about death and dying. This past year I was introduced to two different illustrated children's books that may smooth the path for discussing the path of a loved one with young children.

Badger's Parting Gifts by Susan Varley was introduced to me by the Rev. Kelly Crocker of the First Unitarian Society of Madison last Memorial Day weekend. Discussing death with children is never an easy duty, but it will be with us forever. In Badger's Parting Gifts the readers meet Badger, who is quite old, tired, and ready to go down the "long tunnel". After his passing, the woodland friends he left behind found comfort in the memories each had from an experience gift Badger had gave them during his life: how to tie a tie; how to bake gingerbread cookies; and how to ice skate. Badger's Parting Gifts also has a message for the adult reader -- the shared experiences you leave behind with young people will remain alive after your earthly presence has ended. The book is simple, straightforward, and secular.

More recently, I received an email from a northern Wisconsin librarian who suggested I read Home in the Woods by Eliza Wheeler. It is now part of our home library collection. Home in the Woods gives voice to a young child during the Great Depression who moves to a shack in the north woods of Wisconsin following her father's death. Based on a true story, the book is structured by the four seasons. With each passing season the child grows and heals from new experiences and the earth's renewal. This book may be helpful for a child who has experienced the death of a parent and subsequent changes in their life. I would have liked to see 2 or 3 more statements connecting the natural renewal depicted to the child's grief process. An added bonus to this book is the glimpse it offers into life during the Great Depression.

One of my "to-read" stacks of books.
M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2021

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

From The Headlines: Famous Actors Die Without a Will

From the Headlines: Famous Actors Die Without a Will

By Melinda Gustafson Gervasi

December 29, 2020

The year 2020 stoked our awareness of immortality.  The entire world became painfully aware that even the young, strong and healthy could fall victim to Coivd-19.  Yet, while there was a spike for estate planning services, 62 percent of Americans still do not have a will.  And it is not just the average American without these essential documents; the wealthy and famous are members of this group of procrastinators.  

At age 43, Chadwick Boseman (most recently known for his role as The Black Panther) died after a several year battle with cancer.  He died without an estate plan.  Then on November 27, 2020, Tony Hsieh (age 46) died due to smoke inhalation.  He also died far too young, and without an estate plan.

Intestate, when you die without a will, means that state legislation and a judge's oversight will dictate where your probate property will go.  Probate property is anything you own with no co-owner or named beneficiary.  Not creating a plan is likely not caused by a lack of resources, even Prince, who died in 2016, who took extreme legal measures to protect his music died with no estate plan.

So why the lack of action?

  • believing you are too young to die
  • thinking you'll dodge death by not planning for it
  • avoiding the unpleasant topic of your demise
  • having no clue where to even start wrapping your mind around the topic
Does the reason for avoidance really matter?  The point is, make a plan and take control.  Read more about the artists mentioned here and you'll uncover a trove of information about excessive taxes, family infighting, and wishes that never materialized.  As we welcome the New Year, consider where the proper place on your To-Do-List the task "create (or update) an estate plan" should fall.

Thanks for reading.  Remember that a blog is not legal advice; it is meant to spark thought and discussion.  Always seek legal counsel from an attorney licensed in your state of residence for advice specific to your situation.  Best wishes for 2021.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

A North Star in Estate Planning

 A North Star in Estate Planning

December 24, 2020

By Melinda Gustafson Gervasi

Estate planning attorneys spend a lot of time listening to their clients, or at least they should.  I use a flat-fee system with my estate planning clients. Doing so gives them the freedom to talk without one eye on the clock, fearful of the almighty billable hour.  And talk they do.  Telling one story here, expressing a concern there, circling back to a fact they overlooked.  During our first meeting to talk I have a completed client questionnaire, but the conversation breathes much more life into the clients wishes than a few sheets of paper.

Quite often a client will open up to me which allows me to see that the client has several priorities.  This can be problematic.  Priority, defined means one thing is more important than other things.  When you have multiple priorities in estate planning the path to final documents can be convoluted, overwhelming, and sometimes impassable. When this situation develops in a meeting I mention the role of a North Star.

The North Star, also known as Polaris, has been used as a navigational tool since antiquity.  It is said that when you locate the North Star, you know where you are headed.  Finding your "North Star" when doing an estate plan forces you to isolate what is most important, and guide you towards that point.

From "simplicity" to "dead hand control" to "tax efficiency" there are many motivators behind a client updating or creating an estate plan.  From my side of the desk, narrowing the focus to one top priority often allows a plan to unfold neatly for a client.  This may be the difference between a client growing frustrated and giving up and a client smoothly sailing to a final meeting to sign an estate plan.

Thank you for reading.  A blog is meant to spark conversation, and should not be taken as legal advice.  Please work with a licensed attorney in your area for advice specific to your situation.

Friday, December 18, 2020

It's The House With The Creepy Santa -- Estate planning during a pandemic

 It's The House With The Creepy Santa -- Estate planning during a pandemic

December 18, 2020

By Melinda Gustafson Gervasi

Pivot.  It may be "the word" of 2020.  And pivot we did.  Being and estate planning and probate attorney during a global pandemic has been challenging, rewarding, and ever changing.  When I started my practice in 2005, I never imagined that in my 15th year of solo practice I would be holding client meetings outdoors at my home office with my spouse as the witness.  Yet, that has become a reality.  I pivoted away from a conference room, offers of fresh coffee, witnessing by my administrative staff, and closing with a Frango Mint to go.  Instead I now commonly say ".....go North on Whitney Way through the intersection of Whitney and Mineral Point Rd., then make a U-turn at Marathon.  Go about 10 houses South on Whitney.  Our house is the white ranch with a yellow front door and a creepy 1980s (possibly older) plastic Santa Claus."  This is how I currently give directions to clients with in-person meetings.  

Back at Thanksgiving when we put up our holiday lights I forgot that our front yard had become my alfresco office, so appropriately coined by a client who visited in last Summer.  We have a simple display.  Green lights around the front and garage door as well as our Little Free Library.  There is a Rudolph spinning in the wind while he rides a bike.  It was a nod towards my husband's commitment to commuting via bike.  And then there was Santa.  Standing nearly 5 feet tall he is made of that hard, indestructible plastic of my childhood.  I cannot remember a year without this Santa standing in my parents' front yard.  When both of them had passed and I emptied their home, Santa stayed with me rather than being donated.  Santa was not really my style, but he was my parents.  

My children, now 12 and 10, have little to no memory of my parents who died in 2009 and 2014, but they know this Santa was Grandma and Grandpas.  And they LOVE it despite the crack in one arm and the fact you need to prop him up with a garden stake or he will fall and possibly blow down the road. 

When a home is cleared out as the result of a move or a death, I urge you to pause for a moment or two and ask "what here captures the spirit of [insert name of your loved one]?"  In retrospect I may have tossed, donated or recycled too much of my parents' personal items.  It was a massive job following 10 years of their declining health, and I was stressed.  I wanted it to be done.  Knowing what I know now, you may want to consider:

  • look around your home and make gifts out of family heirlooms, keepsakes, and special items;
  • determine what items capture family tradition - dishes, cookie cutters, table coverings, etc. and make plans about who those should go to when you are done with them;
  • note the story behind the item -- I bought this necklace during our trip to Iceland; this was my great-grandmother's needle point, you gave this to me as a mother's day gift when you were in Kindergarten.  
Creepy Santa, as he has become to be called, will continue to have a place in our holiday decorations for years to come. He does not fit into the "classic" holiday decorations that adorn so many houses in our area.  While those may be stunning, they could easily be any house in any holiday magazine.  Our abode is unique and easy to spot thanks to Creepy Santa.

Best wishes for a safe and peaceful winter holiday season.

Thank you for reading.  Remember that a blog aims to spark conversation and should not be taken for legal advice.  Please consult a licensed attorney in your home state for advice specific to your situation.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Planning for the Unexpected

 Planning for the Unexpected

By Melinda Gustafson Gervasi

November 2020

Earlier this week I was reading my Google News Feed when an article caught my attention.  My heart broke reading every word of a story about a young mother who died due to complications from a pregnancy.  She left behind a large family with very young children who now relied solely on their father for support.  One sentence jumped out for me, causing my head to tilt to one side -- a habit I have when I come across a piece of information that seems "off".  The sentenced went something like this -- "because her death was unexpected there was no life insurance in place."

I believe the true take-away from the story of this mother who died far too young is that we all need to plan for the unexpected.  That belief is the cornerstone of my estate planning practice.  Life happens, it twists, turns, and bucks like a rodeo horse.  Creating an estate plan (a will, powers of attorney, etc.) assumes that one day the unexpected will happen and we have a plan for it when it does arrive.

None of us will escape death.  That is a fact.  We really just do not know when our time will come.  As we enter a season of gift giving, consider creating or updating an estate plan so that your loved ones have a roadmap for the unexpected.  A plan will likely reduce the financial and emotional expense your loved ones will experience.

The day a wind storm knocked down 1/3 of a 70 year old tree, unexpectedly. 

Be well, stay safe, and thanks for reading.  Remember, a blog is not legal advice.  It is meant to be a starting point for thought and reflection.  Please consult with an estate planning and probate attorney in your state of residence for advice specific to your unique life situation.  

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Poetry in Estate Planning: Exploring control


Control: An Acrostic Poem


Melinda Gustafson Gervasi

November 5, 2020

Not only are my children expanding their knowledge though the Madison Metropolitan School District's virtual learning this year, their daily recounts of classroom activities sparks many a memory for me.  Most recently the topic was poetry, specifically 5th graders studying Acrostic Poetry.  This writing style takes a word, such as November, and uses each letter to describe November.  My elementary school days ended in the early 1980s, however, my creative spirit survived my legal education.  Here is my attempt at an acrostic poem, for CONTROL, a concept at the heart of estate planning. 

Create documents that take effect

On your death

No uncertainties left

Take no chances

Record your wishes

Outlined on paper in a

Legally binding manner

Death and taxes are two certainties of our lives.  Why take chances when you can take control.  Estate planning may be a fancy sounding term, one for those with a seven-figure net worth, but it is for everyone.  Your plan may not look like the estate plan for a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, but it will plan for three things: illness, death and taxes.  The heart of estate planning is taking control over these three topics.  If you are 18 or older, estate planning is for you.

Thank you for reading.  Please remember a blog post is not legal advice, but rather a prompt for thought and discussion.  It is recommended that you consult a licensed attorney in your state of residence for advice specific to your situation.

Friday, October 30, 2020

"Trick or Treating" in Estate Planning -The Lesson of Francis Ogden

 "Trick of Treating" in Estate Planning - The Lesson of Francis Ogden

October 30, 2020

By Melinda Gustafson Gervasi

In a hushed whisper my 10 year old daughter called me over to the school desk she uses for remote learning.  "Hey mom, listen to's about a guy who wrote fake wills".  Intrigued by the subject matter, one that squarely falls into my wheelhouse (unlike the advanced math both of kids are taking), I stepped out of work mode and into 5th grader curiosity.

A round of applause is needed for the Madison Metropolitan School District for making the annual 5th Grade Field Trip to the historic Forest Hills Cemetery here in Madison a reality.  Due to Covid19, the field trip this year was virtual, and allowed me to join in on the lessons.

I had never heard of Francis Ogden before.  He moved to Madison in the mid 1800s, and grew a financial empire in real estate and oil holdings in Texas.  Known as the richest man in town, he left Madison after a few spats with the City of Madison over their rejection of land he offered to donate for a library (they did not care for the location) and regulations surrounding his hotel, The Ogden Hotel.  Claiming he had had enough of Madison, he moved to Texas.

Known as an eccentric man, he fed that reputation by taking on a new habit while living in Texas.  Apparently he enjoyed writing wills, in pencil, without witnessing and handing them out to various people including relatives (he never married and had no children) as well as people he had just met, promising them his riches.  When he died many people came forward with those pencil written wills seeking to inherit. He thought he had had the last laugh.

The video fails to tell is what happened to his estate.  My guess, Texas State Statutes (where he was a resident) controlled is intestate estate, likely distributing the assets to his closets living relatives.  But that's a guess.  In the end, his tricks turned on him.  Estate planning is about taking control of who is in charge and where assets go.  Upon his death, Ogden's Wisconsin relatives opted to have him buried at Forest Hills Cemetery, in the heart of the city he despised and moved away from, giving him the cheapest monument possible at the time -one made of zinc.  Writing a valid will is about taking control of the what and the who.  Sadly, Odgen's games landed him back in Madison, for perpetuity. 

Check out this video put together by Wisconsin's Veterans Museum for its Talk Spirits Tour.