Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Perspective and George Straight - Here for a Good Time

I'm not sure when it happened, but all of a sudden I have a fondness for country music.  Maybe because my 30s are drawing to an end and 40 is coming on fast.  Maybe because I'm a parent and see the world in an entirely different light.  Maybe because I counsel clients on matters of illness, death and taxes.  And maybe it is a combination of all three.  Regardless, country music strikes a chord with me these days.

Recently, while driving to the office Here for a Good Time by George Straight came on the radio.  It was the first time I'd heard the song, and I had just learned about the death of a much liked law professor.  She was only 53 and left behind a teenage son.  That news rattled me.  But Straight's lyrics helped me put life in perspective.  And it put a smile on my face.  The following verse jumped out at me "folks are always dreaming about what they'd like to do but I like to do just what I like".

Wills, powers of attorney, trusts, probate -- they are all important and essential, but they are also heavy topics. If they are weighing on you, take a listen, it might help put a smile on your face.  You're still here, have a good time.

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Art and Importance of Prognosis

Prognosis -- it is an art that, according to this NY Times article, has been neglected by the medical profession.  Prognosis the the doctor's ability to predict a patients survival.  It is a key factor in deciding when testing, screening, and other measures should be ceased.  The article states that colonoscopies are not recommended for patients over 85.  However, there are many 90 year olds who are in better health can 65 year olds.  Reading that sentence I immediately thought of my grandparents and my mother.  At 90 my grandparents are in far better health than my mother, who is kept alive thanks to the miracle of pacemakers.  The article states that the medical professional could improve on doctor's ability to research, determine and communicate a patient's prognosis.  It is an interesting thought.  Most people seem to rarely question a doctor's word, let alone think he or she doesn't have a good idea on survival.  Hopefully improvements will come soon.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Forensic Anthropology Center, A.K.A. The Body Farm

Looking for a green burial option, but want something different than a green burial?  Have you considered donating your body to a forensic anthropology center where it would be used to assists scientists in building knowledge about how bodies decompose.  Why would this be important?  Those scientists take the information and use it to assist crime scene investigations.

One center is located in Tennessee, The University of Tennessee's Forensic Anthropology Center, or Body Farm as it is called, conducts research to assist law enforcement investigations.  If you find this appealing, then you are not alone.  Apparently there is a two year wait list at UTFAC.

I'm not sure about you, but I find this to be a great option to the costly and environmental harsh traditional burials.  The cost appears to be zero, and you are giving one last gift to science and crime solving.  That sounds like a win-win to me.

If you'd like to learn more, click here for a link to NPR, which covered the topic.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Elder Care in Modern Times

Nursing homes, assisted living facilities, elder day care, in-home attendants -- commonly these words have a negative connotation with them.  However, as author Hendrick Hartog points out, they are a lot better than historical options.  Caring for elder loved ones primarily fell on children in historical times.  And if that sounds quaint, you may be looking through rose colored glasses.  Recently the New York Times ran an article by Hartog, Bargaining for a Child's Love, which sheds a new light on how the elderly were cared for in times past.

Take a look, and then share your thoughts.  Skilled nursing care, is it a good thing, a bad thing, or a bit of both?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Seminars on Wills, Trusts, and Probate - Madison, Wisconsin

As January approaches its end, I am gearing up for another intense round of seminars.  Some are 2 hours in length others are 45 minutes as apart of a larger retirement planning workshop.  Some are open to the public and free, others require a small registration fee.  Either way, they are a great way to learn more about the world of wills, trusts, and probate.

I always start my seminars with "estate planning is three things: planning for illness, death, and taxes.  Things none of us are going to escape".  Come, learn, and reduce any anxiety you may have about this critical subject. Whether you are 18 or 88, you'll learn something valuable!

My seminar schedule is posted here.

If an organization you belong to is need of a speaker on issues related to estate planning, please contact me office.

Image taken by Attorney Melinda Gustafson Geravsi - Holga Camera

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

What Happens to Personal Property When Someone Dies?

It's the little things that matter.  And its the little things that tend to start family feuds when a loved one has died. I have seen children of a decedent fight over hunting rifles that do not work, a pickle dish that mom had bought at a garage sale, and furniture that would not fetch $20 at a rummage sale.

Estate planning sounds like a fancy and expensive process, but in reality it is simply taking charge of the situation by telling the probate court what to do with your stuff when you die. Sure there are the big items like a home, car, and savings account.  But it never fails that the little items create the biggest waves.

How does one handle dictating what happens to their stuff, or in legal mumbo jumbo, their tangible personal property?  If you live in Wisconsin, state statute 853.32 allows you to mention in your will that you have created another document that lists your property and who should receive it.  This is great because you don't have to clutter up your will with references to wedding rings, china sets, and hunting rifles.

Take charge.  If something little matters to your loved ones, then take control and state what should happen to it upon your death.  Remember, a blog is not a substitute for an attorney.  This is not legal advice, but rather the musings of an estate planning attorney in Madison, Wisconsin.  It is best that you consult with an attorney, in your state, about your specific situation.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Changes Coming for Wisconsin's 529 Plan

Reading the local paper last week I came across a small article that may have significant ramifications on participants in Wisconsin's 529 Plan, called EdVest.  Apparently the current administrator, Wells Fargo, no longer wants to service the account.  That means the State will be seeing a new company to run the 260,000 accounts, totaling $2.6 billion.

Why is a change of administrator important?  The fee that is charged can be quite steep.  My husband and I selected the Vanguard Index funds that are offered under the current investment options.  The fees were quite low, which means more of our money will go towards our children's education, and less into the profits of the firm administering the program.

According to the article, Wells Fargo's current contract ends October 31, 2012.  I'll be watching and monitoring what this might mean for fund selection and possible fee increases.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Very Charitable Celebrities

Forbes has an article listing the 30 most generous celebrities to non-profits in 2011.  I had never heard of either #1 or #2, but I don't have much time for entertainment these days.  It is amazing to see how much money some of these celebrities have given.  From athletes to writers to actors, the list is diverse.

#1 - Jami Gertz, Actress
#2 - Herb Albert, Muscian
#3 - Mel Gibson, Actor
#4 - George Lucas, Director, Producer, Writer
#5 - Nora Roberts, Writer

Click here for a complete list and to see the amounts donate.  Number one hits the seven figure mark!

I love the fact that these celebrities are putting the spot light on non-profits.  Don't let the six and seven figure donations stop you from making a difference.  In the life of a non-profit, every penny makes a difference.

Remember, it is best to consult with your attorney and our CPA for tax information on charitable donations -- not a blog post!  Happy giving everyone.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Finding Care Providers on the Internet

From grandparents to parents to yourself, if finding in-home care assistance is a need, you may want to investigate the web site care.com.  I recently used the site in our search for a new nanny, but have made a mental note to go back to it should my mother need help to prolong her ability to live independently.  The site allows you to post a job, review applicants, and conduct a back-ground search.  The last factor was very compelling for me.  There are lots of ways to find candidates, but doing a background search can be difficult.  On this site it can be done with the click of a mouse.

The cost of in-home care can be staggering.  Since assisted living is not covered by Medicare or Medical Assistance, in-home care needs to be paid for by the recipient unless they have long-term care insurance.  It seems that internet sites are an ideal way to locate care providers and keep the administrative costs low.  Also, it is especially nice when loved ones live far apart.  Finally, you can conduct searches from the comfort of your home or office at any time of day.

The following are examples of some of the services you can secure from care.com:

  • pet sitting / walking;
  • housekeeping;
  • senior counseling;
  • agencies who provide senior care; and
  • individuals who provide senior care.
What do others think of this site, or do you have another one you prefer?  I am not endorsing this site, just sharing my one positive experience with it. I'd love to hear from other people who have stories to share.  Information is powerful, please let us know what you think.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Am I Responsible for My Parents' Debts?

As an estate planning attorney I am routinely asked "will I be responsible for my parents' debts when they die?".  A blog is not a vehicle for distributing legal advice, but from an education perspective I can share with you what I share with my clients.

Photo credit: www.sxc.hu - free image

In Wisconsin adult children are not responsible for their parents' debts.  However, if that child co-signs on a loan, credit card application, or assisted living contract, liability for payments may be established.  What to take from this is, if you live in Wisconsin (sorry for those out-of-state) you will not be responsible for your parents' debts unless you agree to pay for them.  That is why the old saying "read before you sign" is so vitally important.

If a parent dies and leaves behind bills that exceed the assets in probate, what occurs is an insolvent estate.  Using statutory guidelines, repayment will be made to certain creditors first.  For example, the cost of administration and monies owed to government entities are paid before consumer debt.  If there is not enough money to go around, the debts are either reduced or not paid at all.

Again, this blog does not dispense legal advice.  Please seek counsel from an attorney for legal advice specific to your situation.  Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Tax Refunds in the News

Last week I came across this little article on the Channel3000 web site.  The headline reports that the amount of a federal income tax refund was down in 2011.  The word "slips" gives this fact a negative connotation.  Why is this a bad thing?

When I hear that the amount of income tax refunds is down, I interpret that as more people paid the proper amount of taxes through the year and did not send extra money to the IRS.  When you overpay during the year the IRS has your money, interest free.  Sure, interest rates are not what they used to be.  But if you had that money in hand you could apply it towards debt you may have, and there is certainly an interest rate associated there.

Now maybe the amount is down because people are earning less, but this fact is not stated or proven in the article.  Without knowing the reason, I'll just remind you that the frugal approach would be to get to the end of the year and not owe the IRS and not have them owe you.

If you are curious about the status of your refund check you can go to www.irs.gov and look under the "where's my refund".

Monday, January 16, 2012

Martin Luther King, Jr. & Things That Matter

Today our nation pauses to honor a great hero, Martin Luther King, Jr.   Today's post contains one of his many inspiring quotes:

"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."

In consultation with clients have have to ask "and who would your property go to if that person dies".  After asking this once or twice a puzzled look takes over the client's face.  At that time I ask "who or what would benefit the most if everyone were gone, where could the money promote your legacy?"

A will can be a mundane legal instrument or it can be a vehicle for change.  Including a charitable organization in your will is a great way to promote things that matter once you are silenced.

As always, do not use a blog post for legal advice.  Please consult with an attorney licensed in your home state.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Dr. Mike Evans - 23 1/2 Hours

This past week I was introduced to Dr. Mike Evan's YouTube video lecture, 23 1/2 Hours, through a post on Facebook.  What a great way to kick off the new year: it is an entertaining, concise, and motivating 9 minute clip about one very simple thing people can do to improve his or her quality of life.  Walk for 30 minutes a day. It does not need to be 30 minutes all at once.  Ten minutes here another 10 there, etc.  From depression to heart disease to cancer to bone density, walking offers improvements in all areas.  The most fascinating fact was that people who walked were better off than those who received a stent following a cardiac episode.

I have always been inclined to walk.  It is one of my favorite forms of exercise.  It requires little to no equipment, can be done at home or while vacationing.  You can go solo or with family and friends.  During my second pregnancy my blood sugars were running high and were controlled by limiting carbs in my diet and a 30 minute walk every evening.  Walking has been and will continue to be a constant in my daily life.

I spend my professional life working with people helping them take control of issues related to illness, death and taxes.  Some days are more stressful than others.  Walking - what a great way to combat that stress.  How about you -- how do you keep yourself healthy so those estate planning documents can remain in a safe place and not be used?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Book Review: Final Gifts

I began the new year by reading the book Final Gifts: Understanding the special awareness, needs, and communications of the dying by Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley.  When my husband saw the cover of the book he suggested that I may want to consider a career change -- what you do is so depressing he said.  Yes, an element of my work is sad, but the majority of my work feels great because I help people take control and put life in order.  However, I would agree that reviewing books such as Final Gifts should be limited.

While I enjoyed the book, it was extremely depressing.  If you were to pick it up I would recommend reading the the first chapter, skimming chapters two through fifteen, and reading the final chapter, sixteen, titled Nearing Death Awareness: Practical Uses.  The bulk of the book contains moving stories of people approaching the end of life.  While moving, I did not get a great deal of value out of the stories.  I did however value the final chapter.  Especially the suggestion that if you do not know what to say, say nothing at all an instead offer a hug or hold a hand.  Displays of affection may be far better than words.

One other useful nugget I took from the book was that if you are interacting with a dying person or his or her caregivers and want to lend a hand, be specific.  Don't say "if you need something call".  Instead say "I'm picking up Chinese for take-out tonight, what would you like me to get for you?".  People facing the end of life, and their caregivers, do not need the extra assignment of trying to find a useful outlet for your kindness.  Be specific, and it is a lot easier for them to say yes.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

New Years Resolution - Do An Estate Plan

We are well into January, and as usual my phone and email have been busier than normal.  There is something about this time of year that motivates people to finally complete an estate plan.  Maybe it is articles like this one, or the fact that the holidays are behind us and the long days of winter do not offer enough distraction.

I am often surprised at how many people call and say, I'd like a will....I don't need an estate plan.  Over the years I've come to learn that people associate the phrase "estate plan" with something akin to the Kennedys or Rockefellers.  They could not be farther from the truth.  Anyone who is 18 or older should have an estate plan.  The documents may not be the same as a Kennedy or Rockefeller, but they still need them.   Estate planning is planning for illness, taxes, and death.  Things none of us will avoid.

When thinking about estate planning, keep this in mind.  It is about taking control and putting your wishes in a format that others will follow.  Happy new year!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Baby Boomers and Inheritances

As we look to the years ahead, various reports show that anywhere between $10 billion and $400 billion will change hands from one generation, the next, via inheritance.  However, Baby Boomers should not sit back and wait for a call from an attorney.  According to recent reports, Boomers are less likely than pre-Boomers to receive an inheritance. An AARP study from 2003 showed that only 19% of Boomer households received an inheritance, and the average amount was $49,000.  I could not agree more with the final paragraph of this article....don't count on an inheritance, instead build your own nest egg.  Moreover, an estate planning attorney, I'd have to remind readers that people are not obligated to leave children an inheritance.  It is their choice, and they may opt to give their remaining assets to a charity or other cause.  I see this more often than some might think.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Happy 70th Birthday to Stephen Hawking

This past Sunday, famed scientist Stephen Hawking turned 70.  Reaching eight decades is impressive, but even more so is that he has lived 50 years longer than doctor's predicted when he was diagnosed with ALS.  Last week the Washington Post ran a lovely story wishing him well on his birthday as well as offering readers six life lessons we should all embrace.  My personal favorite is "knowledge is best put to use when shared".  Click here to read the entire article.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Speculation About Federal Estate Tax

Under present law, the federal estate tax exemption of $5 million per individual will end December 31st of 2012.  It would then revert to the $1 million mark.  Many think this change is unlikely, however, what would take its place?  A higher exemption?  Repeal of the tax all together and replace it with something else?  Only time will tell, however, reports from Indiana indicate some interest with replacing the federal estate tax with a sales tax assessed on all on-line purchases.

Photo credit: www.sxc.hu - free image

As the year moves forward we will likely see many more ideas and proposals made.  I'm curious to see what happens in the end, are you?

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Wisconsin's Green Cemetery

Early last summer Wisconsin welcomed what I believe is its first green cemetery.  Located in Verona, Wisconsin, it is known as The Natural Path Sanctuary.  It offers an alternative to traditional cemeteries.  Cremains can be scattered, bodies returned to the earth in nothing more than a cotton shroud, and families given a quiet and calm meditative spot to celebrate the life of a loved one.  I toured the facility prior to it getting approval from the various government entities.  I am delighted that it is now open and functioning.

What exactly is a green cemetery?  When opting for a green burial one is forgoing a vault, embalming, concrete, and metal.  Not only does it tread more lightly on the earth, it is easier on the pocket book as well.  The right to a burial at The Natural Path Sanctuary appears to be about $3500.  In contrast, an average funeral in 2006 cost $7,300.  And I'm certain the price has increased since.

Photo credit - The Capital Times, Madison, WI

Green burials are common outside of the US, and were the method used in 19th Century America.  Progress is not always ideal.  Green burials, a return to a prior tradition, offer an alternative to the pricey and environmentally harsh practices of current practices.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Documentary Film - The Undertaking

I heard about this video at a seminar I attended last fall.  For those interested in learning more about the funeral industry in America, I suggest you watch the video.  It is a behind the scenes look at one operation in a small midwestern town.  It ran in 2007 on PBS' Frontline.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Personal Representatives Should Monitor the Mail for 1099-Misc

If you are a personal representative for an estate, I suggest that you monitor the decedent's mail for any 1099-Misc. forms. Why? These are a great way to locate assets that you may have overlooked or not found when completing the estate inventory.

What is the 1099-Misc.? It is a tax form, generated by the payor, for miscellaneous income paid. It might be for services, rent, interest, or royalties. Regardless of the type of income, it is an excellent way to catch any missed assets.

My father died in 2009 and that following January my mother received a 1099-Misc in the mail. We had not uncovered a small savings account at the bank where an old mortgage had serviced. Thanks to the 1099-Misc. we located some unknown assets.

Monitor the mail as we enter into the tax season.