Tuesday, July 28, 2009

On-line Pet Memorials

Today I took part in a continuing legal education seminar on estate planning for pet owners. It was a fact-filled hour and I left with updated and useful information. One new resource I learned about was the existence of on-line pet memorial web sites. You can learn more at In Memory of Pets or Heaven's Playground. Yet another example of the expanse of cyber space.

Wisconsin's Transfer on Death Deed

Several years ago Wisconsin enacted legislation allowing people to use a Transfer on Death Deed, which allows them to leave someone property outside of the probate system. It is a two part system. First, the property owner(s) executes a TOD Deed where they name a beneficiary (it must be a person, i.e. Jane Smith, rather than a class, i.e. children) of the property and record the deed with the County Register of Deeds office. Second, upon the owner's death, the beneficiary files a form with the Register of Deeds and the property is transferred to them as the new owner. This all occurs outside of the probate process. It can be an affordable alternative to a will or trust, however, it does not allow for contingency planning. Recently someone asked, can a TOD Deed be undone? The answer is yes. Wisconsin Statutes, Section 705.15(3) states in part:

The designation may be canceled or changed at any time by the sole owner or all then surviving owners, without the consent of the beneficiary, by executing and recording another deed that designates a different beneficiary or no beneficiary. The recording of a deed that designates a TOD beneficiary or no beneficiary revokes any designation made in a previously recorded deed relating to the same property interest.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Home Burials....A New Trend

Reading the NY Times today I noticed that one of the most shared articles was one about Home Burials.

Advocates say the number of home funerals, where everything from caring for the dead to the visiting hours to the building of the coffin is done at home, has soared in the last five years, putting the funerals “where home births were 30 years ago,” according to Chuck Lakin, a home funeral proponent and coffin builder in Waterville, Me.
While the average American funeral costs $6,000, those who went with a "home burial" paid as little as $250. While not all of us live on a tract of land suitable for burial, how many of us would want a coffin that doubles as a bookcase until we need it? Apparently quite a few.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Safer Homes For Seniors

Whether you are an independent senior or the child / grandchild of an independent senior, the topic of safety in the home is likely one you have or will research. Reading a recent NY Times article, Making Home a Safer Place, Affordably, I was surprised that there was not much of an industry out there for this type of service.

As Ms. Connelly learned, an entire service industry is slowly taking shape around the goal of letting people age in place. If you want to make your own home or an older relative or friend’s home a safer, more supportive place to live, here are basic guidelines to the most efficient and cost-effective approaches.
The article provides a nice overview of issues to consider when attempting to improve the safety conditions of a seniors home. If you live in Wisconsin, one resource to contact would be the Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Funeral Business

I saw an interesting article in the July 2009 In Business Magazine; it is a profile of Bill Cress, president and funeral director at Cress Funeral and Cremation Service. A side bar offers some interesting statistics about the funeral industry:
  • US Industry Revenue in 2006 - $11 billion;
  • No. of US Funeral Homes in 2006 - 21,080;
  • US Death Rate in 2007 - 8 per thousand;
  • Projected US Death Rate in 2020 - 9.3 per thousand
Funerals are an industry, a fact that comes across in the article. Cress is quoted as saying:

"people will always die. It's a matter of how much they'll spend."
The average Wisconsin funeral costs between $8,000 and $9,000, and a cremation costs between $3,600 and $5,000. It is probably wise to give some thought now to what you do and do not want when the time comes, rather than a time of grief.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Jackson and the Federal Estate Tax

People worry about estate taxes. Or should I say, too many people worry who should not. Yes, Michael Jackson's estate will owe estate taxes, estimated to be in the range of $80 million. However, he died with a net worth over the federal exemption....this year that is $3.5 million for an unmarried person. If your net worth (remember to include life insurance) does not exceed $3.5 million, you can stop worrying about the federal estate tax...enjoy the summer instead.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Sisters of St. Joseph on Life and Death

The NY Times ran an interesting article last week on the approach taken by the Roman Catholic nuns of St. Joseph in New York State.

“We approach our living and our dying in the same way, with discernment,” said Sister Mary Lou Mitchell, the congregation president. “Maybe this is one of the messages we can send to society, by modeling it.”
I found the article, and the views presented to be thoughtful an interesting. It shows that the debate on end of life issues need not be so polarized -- there may be a common ground for us all.

Hospice for Pets

Yes, there are now hospice services available for the 4-legged members of our families. I recently read a nice article, with an overview of the emerging programs.

Just like in human hospice, veterinarians feel that the final days for the pet should be spent in comfort among familiar surroundings and loving family. According to Dr. Alice Villalobos, director of Pawspice in California, the goal of pet hospice is help pet owners determine the quality of life for their pets. “If the pet owners and veterinary staff can meet the basic desires at a satisfactory level,” says Villalobos, “there is justification for preserving the lives of the pets.” At Pawspice, the five “H’s” of hunger, hurt, happiness, hydration and hygiene, along with the pet’s mobility are rated each day. Of course, the goal is that the pet is having more good days than bad ones.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Wisconsin Domestic Partnership Guide

For those interested in learning more about Wisconsin's new Domestic Partnership law, Fair Wisconsin has put together a comprehensive guide. The new law will take effect August 1, 2009. Under the new law, domestic partnerships is described to be:
Domestic partnership in Wisconsin is a legal status that provides same sex couples who register as domestic partners with certain limited legal protections.
One aspect of this law that I notice is that it does NOT apply to heterosexual partnered couples; if a man and women are partnered, but not married, then there is no right to inherit under Wisconsin law. This would only occur if the parties completed a will.

Under the law, domestic partners will have inheritance rights that did not exist before (partners could inherit if one completed a will, but if there was no will, there was no right to inherit):
Inheritance and Survivor Protections - A surviving domestic partner:
• inherits from the estate of domestic partner who dies without a will;
• can be awarded the couple’s home and vehicles that are titled in the name of the deceased partner, as well as personal and household items of the deceased partner, by a probate court;
• may have certain protections against creditors;
• can transfer a deceased partner’s assets to the surviving partner without probate if the total value is less than $50,000;
• can receive death benefits if the deceased partner was killed in a workplace accident, with special benefits if the partner was a police officer or firefighters killed in the line of duty;
• can get victim compensation if the deceased partner was injured or killed while trying to prevent a crime or assist a law enforcement officer;
• can sue for a partner’s wrongful death.

Illinois Cemetery Investigation

Here is yet another disturbing news story involving greed and cemeteries; in this case, workers at Burr Oak Cemetery in Illinois are accused of unearthing bodies in an effort to re-sell burial blots. Unfortunately one is not safe from criminal behavior after death.

When selecting a burial location it is important to research your choices. Each state may differ, but all will have some office that regulates the industry. And a consumer protection office may have a records of complaints filed against a cemetery.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


Just came across an article about coffins made from banana peels, if you are looking for an eco-friendly burial, read more.

Colorado-based Ecoffins USA, sister company of The SAWD Partnership, which helped fuel the eco-conscious funeral movement in the United Kingdom, uses banana sheaves and bamboo in the construction of their coffins – materials long noted for their abundance and ability to rapidly biodegrade. The caskets, which take six months to two years to decompose, are made in a Fairtrade certified factory in China and shipped to the United Kingdom and United States, perhaps the most environmentally taxing part of the process. Interestingly, according to the company’s UK site, the caskets are “transported by sea to the UK ‘Russian-doll-style’ - inside each other, maximizing space and minimizing fuel costs” and, of course, fuel emissions.

Fiscal To-Dos

This NYTimes article talks about tackling those pesky financial to-dos that never seem to get finished. The author has extra time on his hands thanks to unpaid leave of 10 days, and decided to use that time to improve his family's fiscal health. Number 6 is "complete a will". The author has made some initial calls to attorneys, and claims that "it will be finished by summer". If you are in a similar situation, keep the following in mind:
  • call a variety of lawyers and ask about pricing. Some charge by the hour, others charge a flat-fee;
  • work with an attorney who specializes in estate planning and probate -- they should be more knowledgeable and more efficient;
  • hire someone you feel comfortable talking with, it is important that you tell this person about your family structure and financial situation -- no matter how difficult either situation is;
  • get recommendations from friends and family who have completed a will, or from a trusted professional you already use (accountant, financial planner, insurance person); and
  • doing a basic will can take between 4 and 6 weeks, depending on how organized you are and if you know who you want to do what (guardian, personal rep, trustee).
Good luck with your to-do list!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Book: Guide to the Great Beyond

I haven't had a chance to read this one, yet, but I will. Saw a blog post on a law professors blog, and thought I would share it here. Many people are looking for books on the topic of planning for death that address emotional issues, not just legal, and this appears to offer that approach. The Book is called Guide to the Great Beyond, by Jane Brody.

Weird Wills

Here is a web site that has information on weird wills. I've linked to the page for Jeremy Bentham, a philosopher I studied in my undergraduate days. The site may offer some amusement on the rather grim topic of wills.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Read Michael Jackson's Will

Yes, once filed with the court, Michael Jackson's will became a public document. Here is a link to the will, which I found on a law professor's blog that I monitor. It is a mere 5 pages, transferring assets into a trust and nominating his mother as the guardian to his minor children; the back up guardian is Diana Ross.

An icon of the music world, but his will is simple at to the point. Naming an executor, distributing his property, and nominating guardians for minor children. His will really is no different than the typical American.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Wisconsin Same-sex Couples Will Be Able to Inherit

Legislation signed by Gov. Doyle earlier this week will grant State recognition to domestic partnerships. Reported in the Capital Times, the legislation is described as follows:

Along with the recognition come dozens of legal protections that previously were only granted to married couples, including the right to take family leave to care for a sick or dying partner, the ability to access a partner's medical records and the right to inherit a partner's property.
I'd like to clarify the article's language; under the current law a partner could inherit, but to do so the other person needed to have completed a will. Without a will, the property would have passed according to state statute, which would go to children, if none, parents, etc. The current statutory distribution did not recognize domestic partners.....it now will under the new legislation.

Since Wisconsin has constitutional language barring same-sex marriage, some have questioned the legal validity of the new law. However, the article reports:

the Wisconsin Legislative Council, foreseeing a potential legal battle, issued an opinion on May 6 that said the constitutional amendment did not preclude the legality of domestic partnerships. The opinion stated, in part, that "it is reasonable to conclude that the domestic partnerships proposed … do not confer a legal status identical or substantially similar to that of marriage for unmarried individuals."
The new law goes into effect August 1, 2009.