Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Trustees Get to Decide Helmsely Trust Distribution

Recent news reports indicate that a New York court has ruled that the trustees of the Leona Helmsley trust have sole authority to distribute trust assets. $1 million will go to dog related charities, the remaining $135 million to hospitals and medical research.

This article illustrates that courts can, and do, get involved with trusts. Often times clients want a trust, saying they want to keep the courts out of their business. Unfortunately, that is not always the case.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Body Donation Program

Recently I worked with some clients on an estate plan, and part of the process was to help them coordinate donating their body to research. The opted to work with the University of Wisconsin Madison, School of Medicine and Public Health, Anatomy Department's Body Donation Program.

Wisconsin law allows a person, while living, to arrange to donate his or her body to a medical school as long as the donation is for educational purposes. At the UW, once study of the body is completed, the remains are cremated. Ashes may be returned to the family if designated forms are completed. According to the school, it is normally two years before the ashes are returned. Ashes that are not returned to the family are buried in an unmarked grave on University property.

To ask additional questions or obtain a donation form, contact the UW at 608-262-2888.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Morbid Facts on the Web....Dead At Your Age

There was an odd link on a blog I read regularly. Mixed in with posts about taxes, the business of law, and estate challenges was a link to a web site that will determine what famous people you've out lived. It's tax day, so I thought I'd share the link....the oddness might take your mind off of taxes.

Check out Dead At Your Age here.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

April 16th - Health Care Decision Day in Wisconsin

Governor Jim Doyle has declared April 16, 2009, to be Health Care Decision Day in Wisconsin. The idea is to raise public awareness of the need to plan ahead for health care decisions related to end of life care and medical decision-making whenever patients are unable to speak for themselves.

Basic forms are available on the Wisconsin Department of Health Service's web site. As always, I recommend you consult with an attorney specializing in the area of estate planning to ensure that your paperwork is accurate, complete, and compliant with Wisconsin law.

Right to Die Laws

This month's edition of Wisconsin Lawyer Magazine's cover story is Society's Challenge: Finding A Better Way To Die. No, not the happiest of titles, but an important topic nonetheless. William H. Colby provides a re-cap of the current case pending in Georgia, presents a nice history of right to die laws, and offers his thoughts on the need for discussing this delicate subject.

In 1969, as technology was beginning this advance, a lawyer in Chicago had what was then a fairly radical thought: What if a person might want to say “no” to a doctor but can’t speak? The lawyer knew that the law provided a method to dispose of his property when he could no longer speak, when he was dead: a document called a will. He came up with the idea of writing on a piece of paper, “If I’m ever in a coma, I don’t want my life prolonged artificially by machines.” He called the paper a living will and wrote a law review article about the idea, and the societal debate began.
Colby continues by pointing out that 100 years ago society did not possess the ability it has now to prolong life. As a result, a new set of questions arise. Here are his thoughts on talking about this issue:

So how do lawyers advise clients, family members, and friends who ask, “Hey, what should I do about my living will?” My own solution may not be the gold standard, but I’ve thought a lot about the intersection of law and medical technology. Here are the three steps I’ve taken for myself.

  • First, I filled out a legal document, a one-page power of attorney for health care. This document states that my wife (or the listed alternates) will make medical decisions for me if I cannot.
  • Second, I’ve armed my wife to act as my advocate if necessary. We’ve talked about Terri Schiavo, and my grandmother’s Alzheimer’s disease, and other situations. My wife knows that I believe the purpose of medical technology is to serve as a bridge to recovery so that I can live life. If it cannot, I want it stopped.
  • Third, I’ve talked with my siblings, my doctor, and other people who might be in the room when decisions are made about me. Health-care workers who deal with the dying all can tell a story about the somewhat-estranged adult child who flies in to “save” mom. To avoid conflict later, talk now.
Colby will be debating the Constitutional, legal, and medical impact of the right to die at this year's Wisconsin State Bar Annual Convention, May 7th, in Milwaukee.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Estate Tax vs. the Death Tax

Regardless of which camp you place yourself in on the issue of estate taxes / death taxes, the topic is getting more press in recent weeks. President Obama has proposed freezing the tax at its current exemption level ($3.5 million for individuals, and $7 million for married couples). But now members of the Democratic party are joining forces with Republicans to set the exemption even higher, $5 million for individuals and $10 for married couples.

But now some Democrats have joined Republicans to call for setting the threshold even higher, in a rebellion that could have important consequences not just for the future of the death tax but also for Mr. Obama’s efforts to pay for his ambitious policy agenda.
The NY Times ran a nice article addressing both sides, and offering some good examples about the real number of individuals/farms/businesses that would likely be impacted by the tax. It seems everyone has an opinion on this issue, but a very tiny fraction of Americans would actually have an estate subject to the tax.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

When Minutes Matter

I borrowed this post title from the cover story in today's Cap Times. Fast Action Saves a Madison Toddler From Potentially Fatal Brain Injury is a compelling story, and one I think all parents should read. As the mother of a 8 month old, I naturally worry about falls and tumbles. While serious injury is rare, I encourage readers to take the time to read this article. It even mentions Garrison Keillor's brother, who I recently wrote about in Garrison Keillor In Madison to Honor Brother. Investing a few minutes in reading the article will help you understand when a minor fall may have severe implications.

Reading these stories made my legal mind kick into action, knowing that too many people do not have their powers of attorney completed or updated. Accidents happen. We never know when a lazy morning will turn into a life threatening situation. You can never be fully prepared, but you can make sure that you have completed the documents stating who should make your decisions for you if you cannot. If you have questions about this process, be certain to talk with an attorney who focuses on estate planning and related issues.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

When Parents Remarry

Love is a wonderful thing, especially when it is found later in life. However, when parents enter into marriage it can have implications on a child's inheritance. In Wisconsin children do not have a right to inherit, however, some parents may not realize the ramifications of re-marriage. Smart Money magazine tackled this issue in its April 2009 edition. Before Your Parents Say "I Do Again" profiles several families and the inheritance wars that were started in blended families. The article is interesting and raises some good questions. As always, I recommend that all people seek legal counsel from an estate planning attorney in their home state -- we have 50 different states and 50 different sets of estate planning laws.

Hospice Seminar

I received a notice today about a seminar offered through Rock County's Hospice Office -- it is aimed at helping your aging parents, and yourself. The seminar is offered the evening of April 14, 2009, and is described as follows:

What community resources are available to help you help your parents find the assistance they need as they age? If you are struggling with Medicare, housing or healthcare, find out how to access local resources and organizations and discover solutions for family caregivers who are caring for aging parents, relatives or friends. There is no registration for this free seminar.
For more information, visit Hospice's web site.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Garrison Keillor In Madison to Honor Brother

I read in today's Wisconsin State Journal that Garrison Keillor will hold a show in Madison, at the Overture Center, in honor of his brother and for the benefit of the Tenney Park Shelter. A similar story ran in the Minneapolis paper. The show will be held May 6, 2009.

Not everyone can honor a brother this way, but Garrison's words express the feelings of many:
When your brother dies, your childhood fades, there being one less person to remember it with, and you are left disinherited, unarmed, semiliterate, an exile.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Is it time to review your estate plan?

Roughly 50 percent of American do not have a will, which means the other half do. Having completed a will is not sufficient, one must review the documents periodically to make sure things still make sense. What is periodically? I advise client that it is every 5 to 7 years, or earlier if you've had a major life event (change in marital / partner status, birth of a child/grandchild, or a death in the family).

Recently the New York Times ran an article, Smaller Though It May Be, It's Time To Look At The Estate, about the wealthy, who are concerned with estate taxes, who are getting up the nerve to review estate plans following the financial crisis. One sentence jumped out at me, and it is worth sharing:

The primary goal (of estate planning) has always been how to bequeath what you have to the heirs you picked. And if handled wrongly, wills can become a vehicle that destroys families.
As the article says, whether you have $50,000 or $5 million -- make sure what you've taken the time to put in writing still makes sense....and is not too vague.

As always, it is best to consult an attorney who specializes in estate planning and probate.