Friday, December 30, 2011

End of the Year Qoute

"Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away" 
- Maya Angelou

Have a wonderful end to 2011 and start to 2012.  I'll be back with more thoughts on illness, death and taxes in the new year.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Death Doula

Doula -- it is a new age word to some, common to others.  I first heard of a doula when I was expecting my first child.  I even hired one with hopes that she would serve as a coach to my husband during the birth.  Our son had other plans -- he was breach and a c-section was needed.  Only one person could be with me in the OR, and that was my husband.  Our doula did assist in the few weeks after our son's birth, and was quite helpful.

Up until this week I assumed that a doula was associated with the beginning of life, not the end.  Then I saw a Facebook post sharing an article for the LA Times.  Death Doula: A midwife for the end of life.  As I read the article it did seem natural to have an advocate assist as one's life draws to an end.  I see the family strife all the time.  A neutral party can be very helpful.  From navigating the health care system, to coordinating family visits, to making final arrangements.

However, I would urge people NOT to plan to wait on completing essential estate planning documents until they have a death doula at their side.  Why?  Unlike birth, not all deaths are easily forecast.  If you are in your 80s or 90s or have a terminal illness, a death doula could assist in making sure you complete necessary paperwork and help with the end of life process.  Sadly, there is not always time to contact a death doula.  Heart attacks, stroke, car accidents, and countless other ways can end a life, any life, no matter the age, instantly.

The death doula is correct, put your wishes in writing.  I highly urge people to work with an estate planning attorney licensed in his or her state.  Medical professionals can point you in the right direction, but only a lawyer can give you sound legal advice.

Photo Credit: - free image

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Guide to Free Tax Services

While attending the 45th Annual CLEW Tax Seminar this past fall, the materials included a resource I had not hear of before -- IRS Publication 910. It is the Guide to Free Tax Services, and includes a listing of free publications, an index of tax issues, and information on free services and programs.

The link I am providing is for tax year 2010, once I see the publication for 2011 I will post an update.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Accessing a Safe Deposit Box Without Probate

Avoiding probate -- it's the goal of so many people. So what happens if probate is successfully avoided but the decedent had a safe deposit box? In a recent experience I had success by using a Wisconsin Transfer by Affidavit form. PR 1831 allows heirs to receive assets, without opening a probate, if the TOTAL probate assets were less than $50,000. The tricky part can be figuring out if an asset is probate or not. If there is a beneficiary form of any kind (TOD Deed, POD, TOD, Beneficiary form) that successfully transfers, then the asset is NOT part of the probate estate.

I love it when problems can have relatively simply solutions!

Please remember, a blog post is not intended to convey legal advice. Please contact a lawyer for guidance in your specific situation.

Photo credit: - free images.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Book Review: The Legacy Letters: Messages of life and hope from 9/11 family members

A beautiful tribute to those individuals who lost their lives on September 11, 2011, The Legacy Letters: Messages of Life and Hope from 9/11 Family Members is a must read for anyone seeking appreciation for life or seeking to learn more about the familial impact of that tragic day in our nation's history.

Each "chapter" starts with a brief biography of the individual who perished on 9/11. A letter written by a family member follows, almost always with a photo of the writer and the deceased. Do not attempt to read this book without tissue nearby. The loving words and raw emotion of those left behind is palpable. As the parent of young children I often felt a kick to my stomach reading about families very similar to mine who lost someone that day.

I find the title a bit confusing. Legacy letters are usually letters written by the deceased, directed towards the next generation. Instead, these letters are a tribute to the departed. More of a eulogy ten years after the death. I happened upon it by accident; thinking it would be about traditional legacy letters.

Reading this book helps put life in perspective. Life is short. The little moments matter. One never knows when tragedy will strike, out of no where on a clear blue fall day. Enjoy the moment, and find peace. That is what I took from this collection.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Estate Planning Seminars in 2012 - Madison, Wisconsin

As we prepare to say good-bye to 2011, I am busily adding seminars to my 2012 calendar. Ranging from 45 minutes guest spots in retirement workshops to lunch & learns to 2 hour long seminars, there is an option for everyone. Please review my web site for specific dates and times. Also, I am in the process of adding additional events -- check back for updates.

Enjoy the remaining days of 2011!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Tracking Down Gift Making History -- The Role of a Personal Representative

Depending on the size of an estate and the year of death, the personal representative may be charged with the task of gathering the decedent's gift making history. Assuming that the giftor had accurately reported those gift on tax returns, the history can be obtained by calling the IRS at 1-866-699-4083. I have yet to use this number, however, other experiences with IRS toll-free numbers have yielded positive results.

Thanks to R. Chistian Davis, Vice President, Private Client Group, US Bank, Madison, Wisconsin, for discussing this information at the 45th Annual CLEW Tax Workshop, presented by the University of Wisconsin Law School.

Remember, a blog is for discussion, and is not a substitute for legal or tax advice. Please consult your attorney and or tax person for advice specific to your situation.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Donor Advised Funds

Donor advised funds allow a person to establish his or her own fund at either a public or community foundation. Each fund would have its own specific purpose or focus. Donor advised funds can be established through Community Foundations (Madison Community Foundation is an example), Financial Institutions (Vanguard Charitable is an example), and Public Charities (such as hospitals).

If you are considering using a donor advised fund, several things you should consider include:
  1. what are the minimum funding requirements?
  2. what assets will they accept (cash, cars, homes, stocks)?
  3. how many generations of successor are allowed?
  4. what is the frequency of grants being made (annually, quarterly)?
  5. what services are offered (research, meetings, etc.)?
  6. what fee does the foundation charge?
Remember, a blog is not a substitute for legal advice. It is best you speak with an attorney in your state regarding your situation.

Photo credit: - free image.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

What is a Private Foundation?

There are two types of private foundations. One is a non-operating foundation, which makes donations to other charities. The most common type of foundation, these entities distribute grants to other non-profit entities. The other type of foundation is an operating foundation, which provides direct services to the public instead of providing funding to another organization.

Private foundations can take the form of either a non-profit corporation or a trust. Both forms are governed by both state and federal law. Most private foundations can continue forever.

Upon dissolution, the organization's remaining assets must be distributed for one or more tax exempt purposes. Typically it involves giving the remaining assets to another non-profit organization.

Thanks to Nancy M. Bonniwell for sharing this information as part of the State Bar of Wisconsin's Annual Estate Planning Update - December 2011. Remember, a blog is not a substitute for legal advice.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Federal Gift Tax Exclusion for 2012

According to materials for the State Bar of Wisconsin Annual Estate Planning Update, the federal gift tax exclusion for 2012 will remain at $13,000. What does that mean? It means that anyone person can give another person $13,000 that year without triggering the federal gift tax.

Remember, a gift may not be obvious to you. The following are examples of scenarios that may trigger the gift tax:
  • adding a person's name to your bank accounts;
  • adding a person's name to the deed to your home; and
  • addition a person's name to the deed to your vacation property.
Should this reflect your life, it is wise to consult with an attorney and or CPA to discuss possible tax implications.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Wisconsin Charities Struggling

In a time of decreased funding and increased need, many Wisconsin non-profits are reporting significant funding concerns. According to a recent survey, 25% of Wisconsin non-profits do not have more than 1 month of emergency funds. As a result, many are looking to diversity their funding sources.

Should you be moved to make a donation to your favorite charity, please keep in mind that the IRS will determine the donation was made during the year the check was cashed (called negotiated) and not written. I had this in mind when we completed our 2011-12 annual pledge to our church. We wanted to claim the entire amount on our 2011 taxes. When I sent the check, I conveyed to the organization that it needed to be cashed before 12/31/11. I'm glad I did because their last bank deposit of the year was December 13th.

Please remember that a blog is not a substitute for legal and or tax advice. Please contact an attorney and or CPA in your state.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The IRS' View on Common Mistakes Made When Returns are Submitted for the Deceased

Below are several common mistakes the IRS finds when reviewing various tax returns (income, federal estate, etc.) associated with a person who has died:
  1. Wrong "Date of Death" is listed -- can have a huge impact because of shifting federal exemption amounts each year;
  2. Wrong Social Security Number is listed;
  3. Simple math errors;
  4. Copies of wills or trusts (when required) are not included;
  5. Inadequate appraisals;
  6. Appraisals are not included;
  7. Failure to include history of prior gifts made by decedent;
  8. Using FMV of house at time of sale instead of Date of Death -- there is a good chance the value at sale is much lower than date of death.
Whether you are doing the form yourself or are giving information to a professional, it will save you time, money, and heart ache if you can avoid these common mistakes.

Thanks to R. Chistian Davis, Vice President, Private Client Group, US Bank, Madison, Wisconsin, for discussing this information at the 45th Annual CLEW Tax Workshop, presented by the University of Wisconsin Law School.

Remember, a blog is for discussion, and is not a substitute for legal or tax advice. Please consult your attorney and or tax person for advice specific to your situation.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Charities Fight Over Bequest

The Pittsburgh Tribune Review reports that two charities in Pennsylvania are fighting, in court, over a bequest a women made to a meals on wheels organization. According to the story a splinter group left the original organization, and is asserting a claim on part of the bequest (approximately valued at $285,000). The matter is still pending in court.

As I read this story the voice in my head says, this is why it is important to be very, very clear about what entity is being named in a will. When working with clients I prefer to include the complete legal name of the entity, its federal tax ID number, and the phrase "or its legal successor organization".

Remember, a blog post is not a substitute for legal advice. Please seek legal advice from an attorney in your state.

Photo credit: - free image.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

How To Fly With Cremains

Urns for travel? Yes, apparently the exist. The other day I was talking with some clients, and the husband told his wife "when I die, I want my remains scattered in Columbia...the country. And they have special urns for flying." My ears perked up -- they do?

The situation has never presented itself to me before, but I know that travel is never easy. Add in a metal container, sealed, containing human remains and all of a sudden you have an airport nightmare.

Based on a quick Google search, it appears that what is currently advised is to use a travel urn or container, something made from plastic or wood, that can be x-rayed. Metal cannot be x-rayed, and you run the risk of not being allowed to take the item on board.

For up-to-the-minute laws and regulations, it is best to check with TSA or call 1-8660289-9673. Using the agency's search engine (look for the "can I travel with" button), each airline may have its own policy as well.

Remember, a blog is not legal advice. Please speak with an attorney for counsel specific to your situation.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Book Review: What I Learned When I Almost Died

Gripping would be a way to describe Chris Licht's book, What I Learned When I Almost Died: How a maniac TV producer put down his BlackBerry and started to live his life. The fact that the author was 38, the same age I am now, when his world was turned upside down by a brain hemorrhage, was chilling.

At 162 pages, this book is an amazingly fast read. Bouncing between the morning he found himself at George Washington Hospital's Emergency Room in Washington, D.C. and the years building up to his career, marriage, and overall life, the story is fast and intense. Very much like the life Licht lived, and still does.

Very much in the style of Tuesday's with Morrie, the book is a concise way to remind yourself that in the end, the big picture matters. Ratings, promotions, emails, all mean very little when you think you may not live long enough for you children to have a memory of you.

The title was a bit misleading in my opinion. The book is more a resume and timeline for Licht. From what I could tell, there was no fundamental shift in how he lived his life before and after the hemorrhage. He even writes that his wife had hoped he'd have a more profound change in his behavior after facing death and walking away. At times the book hints of name dropping and resume posturing. Maybe I've lived away from the East Coast too long, but it detracted from a much more powerful message. Still, it is worth a read. Just be prepared to worry about aneursyms for a while after you finish the book.

Friday, December 9, 2011

No More Kisses for Oscar Wilde

Have you kissed Oscar Wilde's headstone? If not, you're too late. Leaving lipstick marks came into vogue since the literary great died in 1900. And now, after years for adoration, the practice is being put to a halt. All those marks needed to be cleaned, and cleaned, rendering the stone more and more porous. Read more at Time.

What other pilgrimages have readers made to grave sites for the famous?

Thursday, December 8, 2011

What Constitutes an Appraisal?

When dealing with probates, both large and small, obtaining the fair market value of an asset is important for several reasons. One, the probate fee paid to the court is based on the net value of the estate. Two, cost basis for heirs needs to be established. And three, estate taxes may need to be paid if the federal exemption (and in some cases, state) is exceeded.

Many people may have not had much experience with appraisals. Common feelings at the IRS is the appraisals are "crap", and they are willing to go after inadequate appraisals. Concise statement on the agency's part. Here are a few factors to keep in mind to secure a reliable appraisal:
  1. provide a detailed description of the method used to determine fair market value;
  2. appraiser should be qualified and actively appraising properties or available to do so;
  3. appraiser should be objective;
  4. appraisal should include date of transfer, date of appraisal, a description of the property, description of the appraisal process, state assumption or limiting conditions, and the rationale for methods used.
Thanks to R. Chistian Davis, Vice President, Private Client Group, US Bank, Madison, Wisconsin, for discussing this information at the 45th Annual CLEW Tax Workshop, presented by the University of Wisconsin Law School.

Remember, a blog is for discussion, and is not a substitute for legal or tax advice. Please consult your attorney and or tax person for advice specific to your situation.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Book Review: How to bury a goldfish and other ceremonies and celebrations for everyday life

Yes, there is indeed a book title "How To Bury A Goldfish: and other ceremonies and celebrations for everyday life". Written by Virginia Land and Louise Nayer it is a compact book filled with moving ways to acknowledge both the sad, joyous, and rather mundane aspects of life. There even is a chapter on how to bury a goldfish, or other small pet, with a degree of humanity and respect.

Organized into seven chapters, the authors offer thoughts on celebrating or recognizing important events in our everyday lives. The chapters include: Everyday; Beginnings; Fabulous Firsts; Red-Letter Days; Transitions; Loss; and Holidays. Guidance ranges from sending a child off to college to helping an elder move to assisted living to losing an unborn child. As I read I kept thinking "yes, that would be a lovely compliment to our lives". So I was not surprised to learn towards the end of the book that one of the authors attends a Unitarian Universalist church -- so do I.

How To Bury A Goldfish: and other ceremonies and celebrations for everyday life has been added to my permanent reference book shelf. I suggest that you do the same. Used copies can be found for mere pennies on

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

State Returns Unclaimed Funds to Widow - $244K

Last month a news story hit that underscores the importance of organizing your financial affairs while you are able. In this story a husband died, and with his death passed the knowledge of municipal bond he had owned jointly with his wife. Going unclaimed, they reverted to the State of Wisconsin. Thankfully the State researches these assets and tracked down the man's widow.

Lesson from this story -- don't trust that your spouse / partner / family will remember all of the various assets you own. Don't even count on you remembering all of them! One easy solution is to create a simple one sheet overview of assets, and keep it with your financial papers. Include savings accounts, CDs, bonds, stocks, insurances, etc.

A little leg work now may save your heirs hundreds of thousands of dollars!

Remember, a blog is not legal advice. Please seek counsel from a licensed attorney in your state.

Monday, December 5, 2011

What's A Bucket List?

Several times in the past few weeks I have heard reference to "bucket list". The oddest one was in a holiday solicitation from a non-profit. The bucket was a wood bucket filled with plush toys -- a gift for donating $50. Apparently their marketing team was as unfamiliar with the term as I was. According to the Urban Dictionary, bucket list, is a common term for the list of things a person wants to accomplish before dying. I'm uncertain if the term pre-dates the 2007 movie of the same name. Co-starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, it follows the lives of 2 terminally ill men as they race to complete their "bucket lists". A Google search also found, an on-line journal where people can note their to-do items, and update readers as they make progress. I guess it is kind of like Facebook for the macabre.

Photo credit: - free images

Friday, December 2, 2011

Identity Theft and SSN of Deceased Children

Shocked would best describe my mindset when reading this Chicago Sun article on how identity thieves are using a government database to steal identities of deceased children. It is considered malpractice for an attorney to list a client's SSN in estate planning documents, yet the government still publishes a "Death Master File" disclosing a deceased child's name, date of birth, and SSN. The only thing that surprises me more is that it isn't used more often. The fact that it is getting attention may bring it to more would be thieves, but maybe also motivate government powers-that-be to make some common sense revisions.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Gifts, Checks, and the IRS

The holiday season is fast approaching, and that means many people are pulling out the checkbook to write gift checks to family and friends. Under current law the writer can make gifts of $13,000/per year / per person without triggering the gift tax. However, when the IRS is involved, it is important to look into the details.

What if a check is written on December 21, 2011 but not cashed until January 3, 2012. The IRS takes the position that the gift was actually made in 2012 because that is when the check was "negotiated" or cashed. If another gift is made at the end of 2012 and then cashed in 2012, the gift limit will have been exceeded. Why does this IRS take this position? Until the check is cashed, the giftor has the ability to stop payment. Until the check is cashed, the gift is not complete.

When writing checks intended to be a non-taxable gift keep in mind the time frame for it to be cashed, and if possible communicate your desire that the check be cashed in the current calendar year.

Thanks to R. Chistian Davis, Vice President, Private Client Group, US Bank, Madison, Wisconsin, for discussing this information at the 45th Annual CLEW Tax Workshop, presented by the University of Wisconsin Law School.

Remember, a blog is for discussion, and is not a substitute for legal or tax advice. Please consult your attorney and or tax person for advice specific to your situation.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Book Review: Guide to Wills and Estates

This week I've read The American Bar Association's Guide to Wills and Estates: Everything you need to know about wills, estates, trusts, and taxes. (3rd edition).

After reading the book I was not certain if it was meant to be a "do-it-yourself" book or simply an educational read. Sadly, it does neither particularly well. For example, it launches into a discussion of non-probate property before giving the reader a sound explanation of what non-probate property it. Overall I felt the presentation of material was disjointed and far to encompassing. Some chapters, such as Estate Planning for Business Owners, could be book in itself.

The book does offer some great web sources on page 10 as well as a check-list at the end. I also enjoyed the hypothetical situations, designed to urge the reader to take action. Lawyers are trained to foresee the worse case scenario, and the authors really out did themselves.

Overall, it is a mildly useful read if you want to gather information on estate planning. It is not a solid resource for do-it-yourselfers. And it is in now way a substitute for quality legal advice.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Living Wills: A Parody and a Necessity

Recently I came across a 2005 New Yorker parody piece "Living Will" by Paul Rudnick. A great dose of humor to an otherwise difficult and sad topic. What is a living will? In Wisconsin they are also called a Declaration to Physician, which I feel is a much clearer title. Essentially it is a document that tells your medical team what you want to happen if you are in an "end of life" state. Without it your loved ones are left to guess, and those guesses may or may not be followed. Take care, put your wishes on paper, and it is a true gift to your loved ones.

If you still find it a hard topic to address, read Rudnick's piece, and then dive into yours. I personally love number 1 and 12.

Remember, a blog post is no substitute for an attorney. Please seek advice from a licensed attorney in your home state.

Monday, November 28, 2011

States With Transfer on Death Deeds

Transfer on death deeds are a great alternative to living revocable trusts in that they allow you to leave real estate outside of probate. One draw back is that you must name specific people, not a class, and there is no contingency planning. Either way, they are worth a closer examination if they are an option in your state. According to, the following currently offer Transfer on Death Deeds:
  • Arizona;
  • Arkansas;
  • Colorado;
  • Indiana;
  • Kansas;
  • Minnesota;
  • Missouri;
  • Montana;
  • Nevada;
  • New Mexico;
  • Ohio;
  • Oklahoma; and
  • Wisconsin
Remember, blog post is not legal advice. Please consult with an attorney licensed in your state for advice specific to your situation.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Free Estate Planning Seminar, Sun Prairie, Wisconsin

Looking for some free information on issues related to estate planning and probate? If so, you are welcome to attend a free seminar, open to the public, which will cover wills, trusts, and other important documents. I will be giving the presentation, and details are on the web site for Gustafson Law Office.

Thursday, December 1st
6pm -8pm

Get a head start on your new years resolution to get your affairs in order!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving

I am taking the day off from law and blogging to enjoy the holiday with my family. I am sharing a favorite photo, one I took a few years ago. As we prepare to say good-bye to Fall and hello to Winter, may be pause and give thanks.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Book Review: Alive and Kicking

Today I am posting a review that I wrote for the Wisconsin Lawyer Magazine in December 2008 of the book Alive and Kicking: Legal Advice for Boomers by Kenney F. Hegland and Robert B. Fleming. Enjoy.

Short, concise chapters on a wide variety of issues, Alive and Kicking is a useful book for any lawyer who works with today’s Boomers. Chapters address issues ranging from estate planning to identity theft to Social Security as well as divorce and remarriage. Written for the Boomer, as opposed to attorneys, the book offers straightforward insight into the issues faced as people age.

The primary strength of the book is its ability to serve as a quick and handy reference guide to the common issues older clients might raise in the course of representation. While it is not wise to practice outside of your given emphasis, estate planning for example, no lawyer wants to answer a client’s inquiry with “I have no idea”. Alive and Kicking can serve as a quick reference to address a client’s question while you develop a more detailed referral if needed.

As with many books related to these timely topics, the book is limited in that each State may have a different procedure – the book is not Wisconsin specific. Moreover, the book will be dated because it does not take into account increasing levels and limits. For example, when addressing the exempt gifts for the gift tax it references $10,000 when the current limit is $12,000 [note the current limit in 2011 in $13,000].

However, those limitations come with most print media these days, and I would recommend the book to anyone whose practice involves serving the Boomer population. At just over 250 pages, it is a quick and often humorous read. One piece of new information I gained was related to the 1983 Congressional action to prohibit federally assisted housing, designated for the elderly or disabled, from discriminating against owners of cats, dogs, and fish.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Scattering of Ashes in Wisconsin

As an estate planning and probate attorney in Wisconsin, I am a member of a list serve for fellow attorneys across the state. The other day I saw a rather amusing response to a post about the logistics of scattering ashes in Wisconsin:

"I learned the hard way how NOT to scatter ashes....into the wind." -anonymous.

The response was amusing, but it is a question that pops up all the time. Can I scatter ashes at x,y,z? According to the book, Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death by Slocum and Carlson, there are no specific laws restricting the scattering or depositing of ashes in Wisconsin beyond the fact that if it is on a cemetery's grounds, you need cemetery approval.

I assume this would extend to other organizations that may have concerns for being a final resting spot. If there was a question on Family Feud about the top 5 locations for scattering location in Wisconsin I would wager a bet number one would be Lambeau Field. What is your guess?

Remember, a blog post is not a legal opinion. Please seek advice from your attorney, in your state, for your situation. Blogs are no substitute for legal representation.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Pet Trusts in the News

I do a lot of seminars, and towards the end I always mention a few reasons to have a trust:
  1. if you have minor children;
  2. if you need to do tax planning;
  3. if you have adult children who are not good with money; and
  4. if you have pets.
Yes, pets raise the question of creating a trust. Sure most family pets do not need a trust. But some do. When might this be an option? If you have a caregiver in mind that would have a hard time financially taking care of a pet, especially one that is older or has extensive medical needs. But there are also animal companions that simply have a long life span. Parrots for example. Or a tortoise.

A trust allows you to create a legal entity, either during life or at your death, that will hold both the animal(s) and funds you set aside, appoint a caretaker as well as a trustee to manage the funds. Regulations vary from state-to-state, so be certain to consult with an attorney for exact laws on pet trusts.

Curious about planning for your 4 legged or winged loved ones? Here is a great article from the Chicago Tribune.

Thanks to my good friend, Larua D. of Fitchburg, Wis. for bringing this article to my attention.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Rising Costs of Long-Term Care

The 2011 Met Life Survey of Long-Term costs reveals......surprise, surprise, costs have increased in the past year. According to the survey:
  • the national average daily rate for a private room in a nursing home was $239 in 2011;
  • the national average monthly rate for assisted living care was $3,477 in 2011; and
  • the national average hourly rate for an in-home health aide was $21 in 2011.
As the baby boomers continue to age and the average life expectancy of Americans goes higher, long-term care will become an issue for more and more families. Whether it is the person needing the care or the family member who gives or coordinates care, this issue will grow and grow. As a result, people are increasingly turning to long-term care insurance. Before doing so, educate yourself. If you live in Wisconsin, I recommend reading materials created by the Office of the Commissioner of Insurance. Not all policies are created equally.

Remember, a blog is not an attorney. I encourage all readers to seek legal and or tax advice from a licensed professional in his or her state.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Tangible Personal Property -- What's Included

As I counsel personal representatives in the completion of an inventory form for an informal probate, they often ask "what is included in personal tangible property?" Beyond the obvious items of clothing, furnishings, appliances, etc., I point them to the IRS Instruction for Form 8939 for guidance. According to the IRS,

Tangible personal property includes, but is not limited to: works of art, jewelry, furs, silverware, books, statuary, vases, oriental rugs, and coin or stamp collection.

Should a federal estate tax form be required, it will be important to obtain the date of acquisition of the item as well as fair market value (FMV) at the date of death.

Thanks to R. Chistian Davis, Vice President, Private Client Group, US Bank, Madison, Wisconsin, for discussing this information at the 45th Annual CLEW Tax Workshop, presented by the University of Wisconsin Law School.

Remember, a blog is for discussion, and is not a substitute for legal or tax advice. Please consult your attorney and or tax person for advice specific to your situation.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Book Review: Nolo's 8 Ways To Avoid Probate

Nolo's 2010 edition of its book 8 Ways To Avoid Probate is an excellent illustration of why a book is a not a good substitute for legal advice. At first glance it appears to be very user friendly with interesting chapters. I especially liked the fact it included a chapter on small estates avoiding probate.

However, in more than one chapter the book mentions leaving funds to minor children via UTMA (Uniform Transfer to Minors Act). There was no discussion of testamentary trusts. The options were to leave it a child with the child's parent as custodian (under UTMA) or a living trust. Overlooking testamentary trusts is a huge gap in legal options. I prefer testamentary trusts because they allow a parent to establish a trust fund, created only when both parents are gone, for children until the youngest reaches an age they set. It is commonly higher than age 21 associated with UTMAs.

Another short coming of the book is it does not guide the reader through a cost benefit analysis of whether the costs of a trust (establishment and on-going costs) would exceed the costs of probate. Here in Wisconsin the probate fee is 0.2 percent of the net probate assets. That means you multiply assets minus liabilities by 0.002 and get the fee owed to the court. Compare that to a living trust, and it may be less.

Nolo has created some very useful books, this one however is not in my top 10.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Death Certificates, Privacy, and Wisconsin

One of the first things to do when a loved one dies is to request copies of the death certificate. This is usually done by the funeral home, but if you are doing things on your own, you can make the request to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. Death certificates will commonly be requested for:
  • filing a claim for life insurance;
  • transferring non-probate assets (IRAs, 401ks, etc.);
  • closing cell phone and other utilities; and
  • closing social media accounts.
Keep in mind that each entity will likely want an issued certificate for its file. You'll need to order more than one.

On a personal note, I find it troubling that the death certificate calls out the specific cause of a person's death. It strikes me as odd that in our current culture of privacy and data sophistication that these causes are not coded. Why does the cashier and US Cellular need to know the cause of death? There are some things loved ones might wish to keep private.

Remember, a blog is not a legal opinion. Please seek advice from an attorney in your state, specific to your situation.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Common Myths: Parents and Selecting a Child's Guardian

When I tell people that I am an estate planning attorney they often, wrongly, assume that my entire clientele consists of baby boomers or members of the "greatest generation". In fact, half of my clientele are parents with minor children -- and that is a good thing because they are one population where a will is imperative. Why? A will is the only way to legally declare a guardian for minor children. With Boomers or octogenarians, not having a will is not a huge crisis if their wishes do not deviate from statutorily prescribed distributions of estate. But with parents, there is no assumption about who will raise minor children.

  1. There is a perfect match. I'd call this analysis search and search, but take no action;
  2. Someone will step up;
  3. A letter or email is sufficient;
  4. You don't need to ask the guardian before making the nomination.
Thanks to Prof. Gerry Breyer for posting this article on his blog.

If you have children, take charge now. The last thing your child(ren) need is to loose both parents and then have a dispute over who will raise them.

Remember, a blog is not a substitute for an attorney. Please seek legal advice from an attorney licensed in your home state.

Friday, November 11, 2011

IRA Charitable Rollover

Under current law, the IRA charitable rollover exception is slated to end on January 21, 2012. Under the law a person aged 70 1/2 may make distributions of up to $100,000 from an IRA directly to a charitable organization and NOT have it count as a distribution of income.

I learned at the 45th Annual CLEW Tax workshop that on March 10, 2011, Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) introduced the Public Good IRA Rollover Act of 2011 (Senate Bill 557 or H.R. 2502). Under the proposal the income tax exemption would become permanent, apply to people 59 1/2 years of age (instead of 70 1/2), remove the $100,000 cap, and allow rollovers to donor-advised funds, supporting organizations, and private foundations.

Currently the legislation is stuck in committee and is not moving forward. Please check back in the future for updates.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

What Types of Transfers Are NOT Subject to the Federal Gift Tax?

As the temperatures drop and the calendar pushes towards the end year, the giving season is near. Remember, the person who makes a gift may be subject to a gift tax unless it is below the annual exclusion amount (currently $13,000/person/year in 2011) or its is not subject to the tax. Here are three types of transfers (a.k.a gifts) that are not subject to the federal gift tax:
  1. Transfers to political organizations, as defined under Section 527(3)(1);
  2. Transfers to qualifying educational organizations in the form of tuition for education or training. Not included are transfers for books, supplies, room / board, or deposits into 529 college savings plans; and
  3. Transfers for medical treatment so long as that treatment would qualify as a deduction for income tax purposes.
Thanks to R. Chistian Davis, Vice President, Private Client Group, US Bank, Madison, Wisconsin, for discussing this information at the 45th Annual CLEW Tax Workshop, presented by the University of Wisconsin Law School.

Remember, a blog is for discussion, and is not a substitute for legal or tax advice. Please consult your attorney and or tax person for advice specific to your situation.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Book Review: How to Be A Perfect Stranger

This past September we learned that one of my mother's neighbors had lost his battle with cancer. Attending the funeral was important to my mom and me because this man had been our neighbor since my parents had moved into the home in 1975. However, we had one challenge. He was Jewish and we had never taken part in a Jewish funeral. Not wanting to offend anyone I reached out to the ministers at my church, The First Unitarian Society of Madison. To my delight Rev. Karen Gustafson (no relation) recommended the book How to Be A Perfect Stranger: The Essential Religious Etiquette Handbook by Matlins and Magida. What a resource it is; one that merits a spot on my bookshelf.

Organized into 29 chapters (by religion), it contains information related to:
  • history and beliefs;
  • the basic service;
  • holy days and festivals;
  • life cycle events (birth, initiation, marriage, funerals); and
  • home celebrations.
No matter your profession, this is an excellent resource to be an informed and caring community member. It will not be a purchase you regret.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

There is No Such Thing as a Simple Trust

Trusts -- many people think they are a must. Why? To avoid probate, to keep things simple. Ahhh, what people don't know can hurt them. There is no such thing as a simple trust. Oh sure, the language used to construct the structure of a trust can be simple.

Husband and wife create a living revocable trust, fund it, husband dies and it becomes irrevocable on when the first spouse dies, requiring distributions to survivor.
This is common language associated with the so called simple trust. However, things become much more complicated when the administration of a trust is reviewed. Here is a true story I heard while attending the 45th Annual CLEW Tax workshop.
Same scenario as listed above, however, the surviving spouse never took the annual distribution out of the trust....over 20 years. Upon the second spouse's death serious tax issues emerged. The unclaimed income created income tax issues (it was never reported), and leaving it in the trust was viewed as contributing to the principal of an irrevocable trust. Plus, probate was required to received the 20 years of distributions out of the trust that were never taken.
Folks, this is why there is no such thing as a simple trust. They serve a purpose, but should not be embraced lightly. Seek legal and tax help upon creation as well as each year after to make sure appropriate administration is followed. The IRS is not known to be forgiving.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Is It Time To Update Your Estate Planning Documents?

Is it time to update your estate planning documents? My personal recommendation is that powers of attorneys be updated every 5 to 7 years. Wills and trusts should last generations, however small amendments may be need to reflect relationship changes (marriages, births, deaths, conflicts between parties, and acquisition of new property). Don’t put off changes until it is too late.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Top Earning Dead Celebrities

According to Forbes, in the past 12 months the following were the top 5 top earning dead celebrities:
  1. Michael Jackson, $170 million;
  2. Elvis Presley, $55 million;
  3. Marilyn Monroe, $27 million;
  4. Charles Schulz, $25 million; and
  5. John Lennon, $12 million.
The entire list goes out to the top 15. Read more here. In some cases, dead celebrities earn more after death than they did during life. The boon for Michael Jackson's estate has been attributed to a partnership with Cirque Du Soliel, which has launched Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The 2010 Tax Relief Act

At the end of 2010 Congress and the President passed and signed into law the 2010 Tax Relief Act. The law brought many changes to America's tax code, including the federal estate tax. Specifically, the federal exemption level was changed.

The federal exemption level is that amount at which a decedent's estate is subject to filing a federal estate tax return and possibly paying a federal tax. In 2010 there was no federal estate tax. However, until the 2010 Tax Relief Act was signed, the federal estate tax would have returned January 1, 2011, at a level of $1 million. Under this new law the exemption level was raised, to $5 million with an upper tax rate of 35%.

One limitation of the 2010 Tax Relief Act is that it pertains to the years 2011 and 2012; it is set to expire 12-31-12 unless Congress takes action. If the law expires, the federal exemption will be $1 million, with a top tax rate of 55%.

Thanks to R. Chistian Davis, Vice President, Private Client Group, US Bank, Madison, Wisconsin, for discussing this information at the 45th Annual CLEW Tax Workshop, presented by the University of Wisconsin Law School.

Remember, a blog is for discussion, and is not a substitute for legal or tax advice. Please consult your attorney and or tax person for advice specific to your situation.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Book Recommendation: Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death

Do you have questions about whether scattering cremains is allowed in Wisconsin? Are you wondering what about pre-paid funerals in Nebraska? Or regulation of casket sales in Oklahoma? The answers can all be found in a wonderful book I recently discovered, Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death by Joshua Slocum and Lisa Carlson.

The first half of the book addresses consumer rights issues ranging from green burials to embalming to caskets. The second half of the book answers common questions and concerns related to burial in all 50 states.

Easy to use, intriguing information, and internet resources make this a very usable resource. The current cover price is $19.95 -- I'm certain an afternoon reading this book will allow you to save costs on a funeral far beyond the initial expense.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

November 1st - Day of the Dead

It is November 1st, and in large parts of Latin America that means it is the Day of the Dead. A major holiday used to honor departed loved ones, it is becoming more common in the US as immigrants bring this 3,000 tradition to the United States. Traditions vary from wearing masks and dancing to visiting grave sites to playing the deceased's favorite music or eating their favorite food. What a lovely way share the loves of those gone with those that have just arrived.

My father left us in the fall of 2009. My son was only 13 months old and my daughter was just a twinkle in my eye, not arriving until late summer of 2010. The Day of the Dead is a lovely way, even though we are not Latino, to share with them the loves of their Grandfather. Dinner tonight will feature one of his favorites - Swedish Meatballs.

How might you honor your departed loved ones?

Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Halloween -- Silliness for the Day

October 31st, Halloween, and I give you a YouTube treat -- I'm My Own Grandpa. The song brought me many laughs back in law school taking T&E from Prof. Howie Erlanger. Enjoy the laugh.

Friday, October 28, 2011

AB 235 and Possible Changes for Wisconsin's Prenuptial Agreements

According to Capital Times Reporter, Steve Elbow, changes may be coming for Wisconsin's prenuptial agreements. A prenup, or post-nup in some cases, is a contract between a husband and wife about how property shall be classified during marriage as well as at death and or divorce. They are commonly used in the case of blended families, when their are assets and children that pre-date the marriages.

According to Elbow's report, State Rep. Joel Kleefisch is proposing changes so that judges cannot alter an agreement even if a spouse failed to disclose asset or debt information, if the agreement was coerced, or deemed "unfair" by the judge. The proposal, AB 235, is not without opposition. The bill was met with concern by other members, all attorneys, who clearly feel contract law calls for a remedy if the agreement was entered falsely.

I will be monitoring this legislation and will post updates as needed.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Funeral Consumer Alliance

Until recently, I had never heard of the Funeral Consumer Alliance. However, after reading Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death by Joshua Slocum and Lisa Carlson, the organization is now bookmarked on my web browser. FCA is a non-profit organization with the goal of protecting consumer's rights in selecting a funeral. After reading the book, it is apparent that those rights need to be protected. Slocum states that 90 percent of consumers simply do not shop around when purchasing a funeral. Moreover, he states that a person plans, on average, two funerals in his or her lifetime. Without a lot of practice, making pricey mistakes is easy. If you are planning for your own or a loved ones funeral, I highly encourage you to educate yourself using the FCA's web site.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A Family Heirloom: A Teddy Bear From An Old Mink Coat

Working with a couple last week that are waiting the arrival of their first child, they told me about a baby gift I had never heard of before. One of their parents had taken an old mink coat to a company here in Wisconsin, and had it transformed into a lovely teddy bear for the baby due to arrive later this year.

A quick Google search turned up the company, Stadler Furs. What an innovative idea! Family heirlooms are always a tricky subject for families. This proves to be a lovely way to give an old item new life, and create something that can stay with the family for generations.

I'll have to mention it to my mom, although I'm not sure she is ready to part with her fur. She never wears it, but I'm not sure that means she is ready to turn it into a bear....but maybe.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Self-Publishing Meets Today's Seniors

Two weekends ago I came across an interesting article detailing how today's tech savvy seniors are turning to self-publishing as a means of passing on their stories and values. According to the article, of the 1.1 million users of the self-publishing site, 17 percent are seniors. Passing on wisdom is not new among the world's elders, but the availability of inexpensive technology allows them to take on an entirely new approach.

Thinking back to my middle school years I remember doing a family tree project and recording my grandparents voices on tape. Oh how times have changed. I'd love to have a book from my elders. How about you?

Monday, October 24, 2011

Does Your Personal Representative Know Where To Find Your Will?

A will is a guide for the probate court on how you want your probate estate distributed, who should serve as personal representative, and if you have minor children it nominates a guardian. If you take the time and spend the money to complete a will, make certain that it can be found after your death. If not, you've just died without a will!

Last week I learned that an elderly couple I assisted some years ago had both died. Their seven grieving children descended upon the house and were unable to find the wills. I received a panicked call. We needed the original to file with the court, and I encouraged them to look again, this time armed with a description of how I package final papers. To their relief, both wills were found.

Grieving a loved one is hard enough, don't make it any harder by keeping your will so safe that no one can find it. I always encourage clients to tell their personal representative the location of a will, but not the specific contents of the document -- that is private.

As always, I recommend you consult with an estate planning and probate attorney in your home state for legal advice....a blog post is not legal advice.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Tithing Down At Main Stream Churches

This news blurb states that tithing (offering to a church) is down to its lowest level in the past forty years; in 2009, mainline Protestants gave 2.38 percent of their salary to churches. The article also points out that of offerings made to churches, most go to cover building and operating costs. Only 0.34 percent go to benevolent causes outside of the church. This represents half the level given in 1968 to charitable causes.

I found this article interesting because my husband and I often discuss the "needs" of our church, the First Unitarian Society of Madison. We have an amazing new addition to a Frank Lloyd Wright Building. But an equally amazing mortgage. There is much discussion of how to close the budget gap, but not nearly as much conversation about what UUs can do in the community. Apparently FUS is not alone.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Stress and Cardiac Disease

Twenty years ago this fall, at the age of 47, my mother had a heart attack. What followed was twenty years of tests, medicines, diets, procedures, and countless doctor's visits. Over the two decades we've learned that her heart has 3 failure modes. Thanks to advances in cardiac research and care, she is able to enjoy time with my two young children.

Earlier this week I took her to her annual cardiac appointment. And I noticed something different than when we first started going. From the doctors to nurses to fliers on the wall, the message was clear -- manage your stress to have a healthy heart. In the past I'd seen and heard information about the right diet, warning signs, walk every day. But this week it seemed that the overarching message was to manage stress. Diet and exercise play a part in it, but so does mindfulness, meditation, and battling isolation.

A course announced on one flier is titled "Skills For A Happy Heart: Learning mind-body skill helpful in the management of cardiovascular disease". It will be held at UW Health, 621 Science Dr., Madison, Wisconsin, Mondays from 11-12 starting November 7th through December 12th.

This is just an observation from the daughter of a cardiac patient. I also happen to be an estate planning and probate attorney who sees illness and death on a daily basis. Have others observed this change? Is it broader than the University of Wisconsin Cardiac Care Unit?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Vitamins - Are They As Good For You As You Think?

Last Friday I read this article in the Wisconsin State Journal that reviews two recent studies that question whether vitamin supplements are as good for people as they think. One concern is that people are now getting too many vitamins because processed foods have added vitamins as well. Too much a of a good thing is not necessarily healthy. A second concern is that people who take large doses of a specific vitamin may actually be at a greater risk of disease.

While reading the article, passages from the works of Michael Pollan came to mind. He is a critic of processed foods as well as methods to "enhance" foods with vitamins that do not naturally occur in the food. His claim can be summed up with "if your great grandmother would not recognize it as a food, then don't eat it". As with the article in the paper, the thought is that a healthy diet will give you the entire array of vitamins, minerals, etc. Those cited as benefiting from supplements are:
  • postmenopausal women;
  • women planning a pregnancy or currently pregnant;
  • people over 50; and
  • breastfeed infants.
Given my line of work, I focus on healthy habits as much as possible when I am not writing estate plans or handling a probate. As a mother of young children I was a bit surprised in reading the article. My 3 year old takes a multi-vitamin every morning. Does he need it? Do I? I'll be following up with our doctor soon.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

"Leave A Legacy" Campaign

This was delightful news to read. A planned giving council in Ohio is running a "Leave A Legacy" campaign, encouraging area residents to name a church, educational institution or non-profit as a beneficiary of a non-probate asset. What I find refreshing about this is two things. One, they are focusing on average citizens, not the "wealthy". And two, they are asking people to do an easy, low if not no-cost change...putting a charitable cause on a beneficiary form.

When a person mentions a charity in a will or trust, the cost goesv up. First, the person has to pay an attorney to either create or update an estate plan. And second, the asset will be subject to a probate fee (varies state to state), which will decrease the assets available for distribution.

Straight forward, easy, and inexpensive. Everyone can be a philanthropist!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Digital Inheritance

This article from the UK caught my attention; it claims that Brittons are leaving passwords in their wills. What I find shocking is that the article does not address the implications of putting passwords into a will. Here in the US a will, once filed, becomes a public record. Anyone can go the courthouse and review it. Maybe they are not public in the UK. But I'd still be hesitant to put a password into a document that will be filed and read by countless people.

When I work with clients I recommend that they put all passwords on a single sheet of paper, kept safe at home in a fire proof box. That way it is accessible if needed. Passwords for the following are important to log:
  • banking accounts;
  • retirement accounts;
  • credit cards;
  • on-line bills;
  • social media; and
  • digital media stored on the cloud.
When drafting a will, one should give thought to their digital assets. This would include:
  • web domains;
  • intellectual property;
  • images and video;
  • music; and
  • software.
The rights to these assets would be passed in a will since they are a form of probate property.

Remember, a blog is not legal advice. It is designed to share thoughts and ideas. Please consult a lawyer in your state for specific legal advice.

Friday, October 14, 2011

How To Select A Guardian For Minor Children

Several years ago I wrote an article on how to select a guardian for your child(ren). The publication is now defunct and the web site no longer running. It is an article I point clients to at least once a week, so I am going to re-post it here today. It was written for a January publication, hence the references to New Years resolution. No matter what time of year, it is a valuable piece with sound information.

It is a new year, and like most people you may have a to-do list featuring your New Year’s resolutions. Whether you are an expectant or new parent or a seasoned veteran with teenagers, you may want to add “Nominate a Guardian for my Child” to your list.

What is a guardian? A guardian becomes the substitute parent for a child and makes day-to-day decisions a parent would make if the unthinkable happens to both parents. Every minor must have a guardian, and should the unthinkable happen a court will appoint someone to fill the parents’ shoes.

Why nominate a guardian? If you do not nominate a guardian, then the potential exists for various family and friends to seek guardianship over your child. The uncertainty, legal costs, and possible contentious atmosphere surrounding such an event would be less than ideal. By nominating a guardian for your child you not only ensure that your wishes will be considered by the judge, but you also allow for a more smooth transition following a tragic event in the life of your child and surviving family and friends.

Who should you nominate? Thinking of someone who will step into your shoes is almost an unbearable thought; many of my clients tear-up when discussing the issue with me. When working through this emotional area I find that it helps to have some concrete questions to answer. For example:

· Who has a close bond with your child;

· Who is in good health to raise your child;

· Who shares your family’s values in terms of religion and education;

· Who could realistically take on the financial responsibility of raising your child;

· Who lives in an area where you would want your child raised; and

· Who does your child want to live with (assuming they are old enough to talk about this issue).

How do you nominate a guardian? Many clients I have worked with believe that having a godparent is sufficient. It is not. A will is the only legal form of nominating a guardian for your minor child. A Wisconsin will can be completed by working with an estate planning attorney or by completing a basic Wisconsin will that is available from the State Law Library and other establishments. One important consideration in deciding on whether to work with an attorney is whether you would like to create a will that nominates a guardian and also places your assets into a trust fund for the benefit of your child; with no trust, a child would gain possession of the assets at age 18. Do not underestimate your assets; a house, retirement account, and life insurance can add up quickly.

What should you tell the guardian you’ve nominated? First, before nominating anyone in your will you should ask them if they would like to serve as a guardian. Urge them to be honest with you because you want your child to be placed in the most supportive and nurturing environment possible. Second, I advise all of my clients with minor children to leave a letter to the guardian expressing his or her wishes for the child’s upbringing. For example, how much should be spent on holiday and birthday gifts; vacations that should be taken at specific ages or to special places in the world; and preferences for the continuation of sporting or music abilities of the child.

If you are a parent, you have without doubt experienced a moment of wonder, what would happen if I were not here? Nominating a guardian is a process by which you can answer that question and diminish the twinge of anxiety in the years ahead.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Who's The Client In A Probate?

Probates pose an interesting situation for attorneys because they can generate three different "clients" to represent:
  1. represent the estate itself;
  2. represent the personal representative in his/her role in the probate; and
  3. represent individuals who have an interest in the estate.
Unlike lawyers on TV, real life lawyers can have only one client. To do otherwise would create a conflict of interest. The November 2009 edition of Wisconsin Lawyer details the reprimand of a Wisconsin attorney who attempted to represent too many clients in one probate.

In my experience, a primary task of estate planning attorneys is to educate clients. One topic that is often overlooked is who is the actual client. Remember, there should only be one, and that guarantees each client receives unbiased advice. It may sound nice to have one attorney answer all the questions about a loved ones death, but it is not wise.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Patient Confidentiality and Powers of Attorney?

How do powers of attorney for health care and client confidentiality co-exist? This question came to my mind while reading an article in the Wisconsin State Journal over the weekend. Apparently a Middleton man is suing his physician and others after the doctor called his mother (following surgery) and disclosed the patient was HIV positive. Asserting the doctor violated state law, the patient is now suing. What I find interesting is that the article does not mention whether the man's mother was operating with authority established in a power of attorney for health care. If so, it raises the question of whether a patient maintains confidentiality....I'll be watching this case and looking at my own POAs more closely.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

When Parents Die, Don't Forget The Cemetery Plots

Last week I opened a new probate file. Three adult children came to my office for assistance in the probate of their mother's estate. Their father had died a few back, and now they needed help transferring the assets. One asset came up that they would have overlooked, as I'm certain many do....the rights to cemetery plots.

It turns out that their parents had purchased five plots, and now only two were used. What will happen to the remaining three plots? A quick call to the cemetery sexton, and we had an answer. The children will decide who will get a plot and we'll send a letter to the sexton so that new easements can be drafted.

It was my own personal experience that led me to inquire about extra plots; my great-grandparents had purchased numerous plots in the small Wisconsin town were my mother was raised. Some remain open, and have passed from one generation to the next. It is an asset often forgotten about in traditional probate matters.

Remember, reading a blog post is not the same as seeking legal advice. Please consult with an attorney before taking action.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Tony Curtis' Estate Plan

Recently I was reading a Forbes' article on the brewing family dispute in the estate of Tony Curtis. Apparently he changed his will several months before his death, and in that change left everything to his 5th wife and explicitly stated he was leaving nothing to his five children. That fact does not shock me, I have clients who do the exact same thing. It is relatively common in blended families. What shocks me is Mr. Curtis was either not advised or did not take the advice of his attorney to explain why they were not mentioned in the will. Would an explanation have prevented the brewing arguments in court that his will was changed under duress or fraud? Maybe not, but possibly. Parents are not required to leave anything to children, and stating why can go along way. If not, emotions will run high. Especially when the 5th wife auctions off hundreds of personal items, and gives none to the children.

A blog is not a replacement for an attorney. And if you hire an attorney, you may not like what they suggest (i.e. writing a letter of explanation) but it usually is given with the intent to minimize family feuds.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Joint Ownership Between Generations

It's a typical scenario. Elder in a family starts thinking about his/her death and his/her property. They want to avoid probate, and do not want to pay for an attorney. So, operating on what they think is wise, they start adding the name of a younger person to the deed or title. Life goes on, they die, and then the problems start. And they usually end up in the office of an attorney, one of the things the elder had hoped to avoid. And in some cases, the elder may end up in an attorney's office before dying. Why? The younger person that was added to the title is now bankrupt, divorced, being sued, or died themselves....and what happens to the property then? The answer is usually not what the elder wants to hear.

Forbes addressed this issue well, and the Wills, Trusts, and Estates Prof Blog offered a concise summary. Read more by clicking on the links.

I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to hire a lawyer to consult on estate planning measures. A blog is not legal advice, it is food for thought.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Want a FREE Bottle of Red Wine?

Dear Readers,

Once again I am participating in the American Heart Walk to raise funds for education and research. My original goal of $380 ($10 for each year of age I am on walk day) has been met! I want to see how much I can raise, and am now offering a FREE bottle of red wine. I will draw one name from the list of all my supporters walk day. Want to try to win? You can sponsor me on-line(requires a minimum of $25) or post a comment and I'll get you information on where to send a check. Deadline is 7am this Saturday, October 8th.

Help me raise funds. If not for the advances in cardiac care, my mother never would have lived to meet her grandchildren. And that is why I walk, and why this is the only cause I solicit for.


Steve Jobs, Feb. 24, 1955 - Oct. 5, 2011

Twitter had a brief "buckle" in its processing yesterday under the weight of tweets related to the death of Steve Jobs, who died October 5th, 2011. One I read said "few people can say they've changed the world." -Dave Ramsey. I couldn't agree more. The NY Times has a lovely article chronicling the outpouring of grief and tributes that began to surface Wednesday evening. I'm saddened to learn that pancreatic cancer has claimed yet another amazing human being.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Wisconsin Historical Society Receives $500,000 Gift

According to the Capital Times, the Wisconsin Historical Society has been awarded a gift of $500,000 from the Jeffris Family Foundation. The gift is intended to be used for official recognition of the State's historical treasures.

I always enjoy reading about donations and gifts to non-profits. However, I always wonder if large gifts like these dissuade others from making more modest gifts?

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

2011 Edition of Gustafson Law Office's News letter

Being mailed this week, my 2011 edition of my newsletter. Click here to read on-line. Updates on tax issues, cell phones in an emergency, and ethical wills are included.

If you have story ides for the 2012 newsletter, or this blog, please submit a comment.

Happy reading!

Monday, October 3, 2011

What is a Codicil

Codicil -- it's a fancy legal word for amendment. If you have an existing will that needs a minor update for your nomination of personal representative, guardian, percentage bequeathed, etc. -- a codicil is a term you need to know. Executed in the same manner as a will, it is the legal way to change an element within your existing will.

This blog post is not meant to convey legal advice; it is always best to consult with an attorney in your state.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Funerals Give Chance to be Charitable

Here is an interesting article of Times of India. The English is not perfect, but the message is clear. Traditional sending of flowers to comfort a grieving family is giving way to a new trend towards raising funds for a charity.

But Mangalore Chirstians are discovering that the best way to pay tribute to the departed is by alleviating the suffering of others.

Donations in lieu of flowers is also common here in the U.S. If you would prefer charitable donations over flowers, please put that in writing and let your loved ones know. As the article points out, the only people who will not like this idea most likely are flower shop owners.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Book Review: The Last Lecture

A small book, The Last Lecture, by Randy Pausch and Jeffrey Zaslow is a wonderful example of an ethical will, and is an inspiring read. Just over 200 pages, it is filled with savvy, insight, and motivation to live your childhood dreams and enable those of others. If you are a parent or play a significant role in a child's life, it is a must read. Having married an engineer, I took special gratitude in reading Randy's thoughts and comments. Engineers have a unique way of looking at the world -- blunt, but too the point. If you do pick up this book, I recommend having a box of tissues close at hand.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Argument Against Co-Agents for Health Care

One challenge of being an attorney is to convince clients that their well thought out plans are wrong. Case in point -- when clients want all three children to have an equal say in health care decisions.

I've reviewed Wisconsin's statutes and did not find an explicit prohibition on co-agents. However, after posting to an estate planner list serve I can tell that I am not the only attorney to advise against this practice. What happens if they don't agree? What happens if one is not available? And the scenarios continue.

When it comes to naming an agent for your power of attorney for health care I always advise that clients select:
  • someone who is comfortable speaking with medical personnel;
  • someone who can handle seeing you in a very compromised state; and
  • someone who has the time to be at your bedside.
I should add to that list -- pick a someone, not someones. You can have an order of succession, but one is most likely best.

As always, a blog post is intended to spark discussion, not dispense legal advice. I highly recommend you speak with an attorney in your state about your situation before taking action.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Will on File With The Court

Have you named a personal representative in your will, but a small part of you wonders if they'll actually follow your wishes? Are you afraid that your will be lost or destroyed if kept at home? In either case, you may want to consider putting your will on file with the Probate Court in the County where you reside. Here in Dane County, Wisconsin, one can file his/her will with the court for a nominal fee. It is then stored in a vault. The testator's death certificate must be furnished to have the will entered into probate; the original is never released. Word of caution, if you do file your will with the court, leave a clear indication to your loved ones about where it is filed. Without it, you've died intestate -- and that is usually not ideal.

As always, this blog is designed to educate and facilitate discussion. It should not take the place of legal counsel. Please consult with an attorney in your state of residence for accurate and up-to-date laws and requirements.

Monday, September 26, 2011

When a Wisconsin Estate is Valued at $50,000 or Less

In the State of Wisconsin, if a person dies with a probate estate of $50,000 or less, probate can be avoided by using a Transfer by Affidavit form. The key to using this technique is to accurately determine that the decedent's probate estate was $50,000 or less. To do this you need to classify assets as either probate (meaning there was no label indicating what should happen to an asset upon death) or non-probate (meaning there IS a label, or beneficiary form, disposing of the asset upon death). Next, you need to determine the fair market value of the probate assets on the date of death. Common types of non-probate methods include, but are not limited to:
  • transfer on death deed;
  • trust;
  • Pay on Death card (POD);
  • Transfer on Death card (TOD); and
  • joint ownership with the right of survivorship.
My first step in handling a probate file is to make this determination. It can mean the difference between a relatively easy transaction or heading down the lengthy path of probate.

This post is not intended to provide legal advice, but rather educate readers on estate planning concepts. It should not replace consulting an attorney, licensed in your state.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Quote on Death and Birthdays

As we say good-bye to Summer and hello to Fall, I am attempting to be more whimsical than usual, I offer you this quote today:

"The day which we fear as our last is but the birth of eternity." - Seneca (Roman Philosopher, mid-1st Century AD).

I will keep this in mind as I celebrate my birthday over the weekend.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Charitable Donations Increase Thanks to On-Line Technology

According to this report, thanks to the ability to donate on-line, charitable donations are on the increase even though economic times are hard. One reason, younger people who may have not donated in the past are using social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, to donate.

As I mentioned yesterday, I am raising funds for the American Heart Walk on October 8th. One criticism I have received is that the on-line donation forms do NOT accept a pledge below $25. The donor asked "what happened to the idea that every penny counts?" I agree, and have encouraged AHA to adjust it's on-line donation form.

What do you think?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

American Heart Association Heart Walk - Madison, Wisconsin

For more years than I can remember, I will be lacing up my shoes to participate in the American Hearth Associations annual Heart Walk. Why? Advances in cardiovascular disease, medication, and research are the reason my mother is celebrating her 20th hearth attack survivor anniversary this year. It was my freshmen year of college, in the early Fall, when she went to the Emergency Room to find out she was having a heart attack. Her struggles have lasted two decades, and thanks to a pacemaker and state of the art drugs, her despite her cardiovascular disease progression, she has lived to enjoy walks with her grandchildren. Every dollar helps. If you'd like to sponsor my fundraising efforts, you can do so by making an on-line pledge.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Cell Phones and Emergencies

Did you know that if you are in an accident and the EMTs arrive, there is a good chance they'll search the contacts in your cell phone for an "emergency" contact listing. Sometimes it is referred to simply as ICE. You can enter ICE or Emergency in your phone along with the associated number. That way, your family/friends can be easily contacted. I've just done mine, will you?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Writing An Obituary

Two years ago yesterday, September 18, 2009, my father took his last breath. He had spent 7 days in palliative care at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics in Madison, Wisconsin. The first night he was there I stayed with him, at his side. His move to palliative care meant finality. It meant that we'd have to write an obituary. Curled up under a blanket in a chair at his bedside I typed on my notebook computer. It was the hardest thing I've every written. If you are faced with this emotional task, keep the following in mind:
  • include information on life as well as death;
  • provide dates and locations, but be mindful of identity theft (sadly, criminals use this type of information);
  • mention a charity in-lieu of flowers if you are inclined; and
  • be creative and think outside the box.
For more tips on writing an obituary, there are several web sites. If you need a sample, here is the text I wrote for my dad:

Carl E. Gustafson

Born November 20, 1941

Died September 18, 2009

Carl E. Gustafson ended his earthly journey on September 18, 2009. His final days were spent in the palliative care unit at University Hospital and Clinics, where daily he was surrounded by family and friends. His family would like to extend their gratitude to the medical staff at UWHC, especially to the doctors and nurses in the palliative care unit, and to Doctor Adnan Said, who worked with him the past 5 years.

Born at Swedish American Hospital in Rockford, Illinois, his family moved to Wisconsin when he was ten years old and settled on the west side of Madison. Carl attended Middleton High School, and then completed the steamfitter program at Madison Area Technical College. He worked as steamfitter for several years and was a member of the Steamfitters Local Union No. 601. Following a back injury he changed career paths, turning his love of cars into a business. He spent the next 30 years as the owner of a used car lot and auto body repair business; first in Middleton, and most recently in Fitchburg. Many may remember his business card, which proclaimed “buy a car from Gus, and get no fuss”.

In 1970 he married the love of his life, and best friend, Sharon (Lamb) Gustafson. Over the course of their marriage they shared many joint ventures: doubling the size of their first home with their own hands, building a family cabin in Westfield, Wisconsin, and for many years working side by side at the family business.

Over his 67 years Carl made countless friends and was gifted with a memory for faces and names. His family often joked that there was no where they could go without him running into someone he knew. Even on a family trip to Disney World, Carl bumped into friends while waiting in line.

He is survived by: his loving wife, Sharon (Lamb) Gustafson; his son Robert (Rhonda) Gustafson of The Village of Dane, and their three sons David (Ashley), Michael, and Eric; his daughter, Melinda (Charles) Gustafson Gervasi, of Madison, and their son Ian; his twin sisters, Patricia (Rodger) Edgren of Marshall, and Judith (Michael) Jennings of Mt. Horeb; and many nieces and nephews. He was preceded into death by his father, Carl A. Gustafson and his mother Agnes (Fitzgerald) Gustafson.

Even though his earthly time has come to an end, his spirit and image will live on in the lives of his wife, son, daughter, and grandsons. A visitation will be held on Thursday, October 1st, from 10:30am – 12:30pm at the Brooklyn United Methodist Church (201 Church St., Brooklyn, WI) and will be followed by a memorial service and private burial.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Leaving An Inheritance For Children Not A Priority For Boomers

Time's on-line magazine recently ran an interesting article on Baby Boomers. Citing a study by US Trust, it states that less than half of Baby Boomers indicate that it is a priority for them to leave an inheritance to their children; only 49% stated it was a priority. I would be interested to see what the statistics are for The Greatest Generation, a.k.a., the parents of the Baby Boomers. From my personal experience with clients, they are both thrifty had have a strong desire to leave an inheritance to the following generation(s).

Why? Speculation is that the Baby Boomers, commonly labeled selfish, believe they've done enough for their children by paying for their education and in some cases helping with the down payment on a first home. The article also states that Boomers feel their children are not well equipped to handle a lump-sum inheritance.

As the mother of young children, ages 3 and 1, I noticed a connection between the first reason and the second. Unless parents give their children opportunities to pay for things, and the opportunity to make mistakes, the children will never develop good financial sense. Having your education paid for or receiving a gift to buy your first home seem wonderful, but it leaves a generation of children who haven't developed those skills. Having financed my own education (all 9 years of it) and working with my husband to save for a 20% down payment on our first home, I'm thankful that as a child I learned how to be financial savvy. Now as a mother I am challenged with the determination to pay for my children's education (529 plans were established for both within weeks of receiving their SSN), but give them the chance to learn about finances before they leave home.

As for those Baby Boomers, they are enjoying their money now. Vacations, fine wine, and other luxuries that they probably skipped while raising children and building those nest eggs. Enjoy!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Anniversary of The Last Lecture

September 18th marks the anniversary of "The Last Lecture". What started as a legacy statement by a terminally ill professor turned into a video, book, and amazing legacy. I have not yet read the book, but have requested a copy. Watch for a review in the future. As we approach the anniversary of this famous ethical will, I pose to you -- what is your legacy?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Remember a Charity Week 2011 - The United Kingdom

Have you heard of Remember a Charity Week? I hadn't until I came across its web site on a solicitation from an American non-profit. Apparently, in the UK, September 11 - 18th is "remember a charity week". According to the web site, 74 percent of the UK population support charities. However, only 7 percent name a charity in a will. The web site is hoping to change those numbers. What a great movement! I hope to see it celebrated in the US in 2012!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Fall Seminars - Estate Planning

Hints of orange, yellow, and red can be seen on the trees around Madison. And, with the arrival of fall comes an up-tick in my estate planning seminars. Starting this week, I will be speaking at a variety of venues this fall. Check out my schedule on Gustafson Law Office's web site, and sign up if you want to learn more about wills and other important documents.

If your business or professional organization is in need of a speaker, please let me know and I can put together an informative and entertaining presentation!