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.