Thursday, May 31, 2012

Ashes, Space, and Star Trek

My electrical engineering husband and our oldest child, who is not quite 4, are huge fans for all things related to space.  Included in that fascination is the Star Trek series as well as the recent launch by SpaceX.  To my surprise, their interest intersected with my career focus.  SpaceX, the first private company to deliver supplies to the International Space Station also carried the cremains of 300 people into space.  Included were those of James Doohan, who played Scotty in the original series.

Sound appealing?  If so, make sure you take the proper steps to ensure your final wishes are carried out.  In Wisconsin that involves completing the form: Authorization for Final Disposition, which appoints a person as well as a back up to make your burial arrangements.  If that should include a space flight, be certain to complete the form.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Flat Fee and Estate Planning

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When people hear I'm a lawyer they often make some comment about my hourly rate.  Sure, I have an hourly billable rate for my work related to probates, but not for drafting estate planning documents.  Why not?  Because I don't want clients looking at the clock, thinking "lord, she sure can talk a lot...this is costing a fortune!"  Instead I need them to be relaxed and talkative.  Over the course of a conversation little nuggets about their family, finances, and health will come out.  And some of those nuggets have an impact on what the documents I draft will say.  For example:

  • my daughter.....well she really isn't my daughter, she is my niece who I took in when she was 3 years old;
  • oh.....and there is the cabin in Minnesota that we own a half share of with my sister;
  • the date of my divorce, well technically we never finished the divorce, we just went our separate ways.
All true statements, and all drastically alter the approach to estate planning.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Drawback of Wisconsin's Free Power of Attorney for Health Care

Those who know me well know that I appreciate frugal approaches to life.  However, I have my limits and one is not using the free power of attorney for health care form provided by Wisconsin's Department of Health Services.  Why?  The form does not contain an explicit waiver of the federal law (HIPAA) that makes one's health information private.  What good is a form that says my husband can make decisions for me, but does not give him legal authority to access health information?  Instead, I use the model forms in Eckhardt's Workbook for Estate Planners in Wisconsin.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day Observed

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It's Memorial Day 2012 and I am taking the day off to spend with family, give thanks for those who defend our nation, and feed the goats at Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison.  Enjoy your holiday, and I'll be back tomorrow with another post about illness, death and taxes for the middle class.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Care For Aging Parents

This week I read an article out of Boston.  The message was clear, people are living longer and the need for a plan about how to care for elders is increasing.  Especially when the resources are at risk of running out.  The information presented was everything I'd seen before:

  • have aging parents put a will and powers of attorney together;
  • considering long-term care insurance; 
  • determine if the children can and are willing to fund part of the older generations expenses;
  • selling mom's home will cause fights between siblings; and
  • don't wait until a crisis hits to start discussing options.
All of this is true, but what we really need is an article that motivates people 70 and older to take action.  Why?  Because no matter how informed a 65 year old is about the importance of his/her parents doing these things, nothing will happen until the parent acts.  One exception, after crisis arrives, the children can go to court to seek guardianship.

Routinely I get calls from adult children wanting to put their parents affairs in order.  However, unless the parent contacts me, there is nothing I can do from a legal perspective.  In those situations I encourage the children to talk with the parent about taking control of the situation. The parent can make decisions, and they usually know what is best for the family dynamic.  Also, emphasizing that it is less expensive to have a lawyer set up papers in advance as opposed to hire one to put out a fire.  Thrift is a strong motivator for our nation's elders.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Selecting A Nursing Home

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Nursing homes, the topic is sure to get one's attention.  Especially for someone who is aging and loosing their independence.  So many people say "I never want to go to one", yet it is a primary way our country cares for our sickest members.

As my father neared the end of his life he spent one month in a nursing home, even though he always voiced his dislike of such facilities.  Selection was not much of an issue; he was being released from a hospital and the first bed available was what we took so that he could stay relatively close to my mom.  The one he went to, Capitol Lakes, in Downtown Madison was described by many as wonderful.  And it did a decent job on meeting his needs.

However, my jaw dropped open this past weekend while reading an article in the Wisconsin State Journal about nursing facilities with citations for improper care.  Capitol Lakes was at the top of the list because a 95 year old women received 10 times the prescribed morphine; she died the next day.  The State of Wisconsin fined the nursing home $4,550 and the federal government fined them $6,300.  What shocked me was the quote from Tim Conroy, executive director of Captiol Lakes, "She was going to die.  This is not what killed her."  To that I say what?  That flawed reasoning can be used by anyone who harms another -- we are all dying, we just aren't all aware of the process.  If another member of my family requires skilled nursing care and the first bed to open up is at Capitol Lakes, I will pause before consenting to a transfer.  The ambiance may be lovely, but the mindset of the executive director could use some remodeling!

The article linked above offers several resources for learning about skilled nursing facilities, specifically if they have been issued citations, staffing levels, and quality of care.  Those include:

  • Wisconsin Board on Aging and Long Term Care, 1-800-815-0015; and
  • Dane County Area Agency on Aging, 608-261-9930

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Death and Identity Theft

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Dying does not put an end to identify theft, it may even accelerate it!  According to this article the Social Security Administration sells its list of deceased Social Security card holders.  From which the deceased's SSN can be posted on-line, and be stolen.  Thieve claim the deceased on his/her tax return, and take the deceased's tax return if it was available.

Prevention occurs when loved ones monitor a deceased person's credit report, which requires a death certificate and proof of relationship.  Seriously!  I loose a family member and now I have to monitor their credit until I die!  Honestly, the government needs to take steps to prevent SSNs from being posted on the internet.

Agree with me?  If yes, I urge you to contact your Representative and or Senator in the US Congress.  Simple changes would spare families continued loss, and bring an end to some criminal pursuits.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Prince William to Inherit Under Diana's Will

Odd that Prince William appears on my blog twice in one month, but so goes life!  Recent media coverage indicates that on June 21st Prince William will turn 30 and be eligible for up to a $16 million inheritance under his mother, Diana's, will.  The will also allows him to edit the will to take less and give more to his younger brother Harry.

The edit idea is an odd one, and not one I've seen in my practice.  The point I want to focus on is that the distribution occurs when William, the elder child, turns 30.  When I work with clients the terms of the will usually place funds in a trust.  And those funds are controlled by a trustee until the youngest living child reaches a certain age.  Why?

One, it guarantees the pool of funds is available until the youngest reaches a certain point in life.  And two, if distributions are made when the elder hits a certain age, the distribution may be unequal based on stock market performance.  For example, if a child inherited in 2007 and took half the pot, and his/her younger sibling got the remainder in 2010, there would be a significant difference due to market fluctuation.

Remember, a blog is not legal advice. Thanks for reading, and be certain to consult an attorney in your state for counsel specific to your situation.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Don't Overlook Beneficiary Forms

When working with clients, I always advise them to obtain copies of the beneficiary forms that they have on file with financial institutions.  That includes: life insurance, retirement accounts, transfer on death cards with brokers, and pay on death cards with banks and credit unions.  Why do I do this?

First, the designation on the beneficiary form controls.  A will does not override beneficiary designations.  I want my clients to make sure the forms say what they think they say.  If not, it's time for an update.

Second, having a copy of the beneficiary form is a good road map to leave.  If someone dies and there are copies of forms for various accounts, life is easier for the personal representative.  It will save time and money.

And third, you don't want to count on the financial institution to keep an accurate record of your designations.  Companies can and do misplace forms.  Take responsibility and keep a paper copy.  Yes, we live in a digital age, but paper is still powerful in the legal system.

Remember, a blog is not a lawyer.  Please consult an attorney in your area to obtain counsel to your specific situation.  Thanks for reading!

Friday, May 18, 2012

With Summer Comes Pre-Nuptial Season

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As May gets into full swing, so do the meetings on my calendar that involve marital property agreements.  Why?  As summer approaches, so does an increase in the number of weddings.  And with marriage, one often finds the martial property agreement (hereafter MPA), otherwise known as a pre-nup.  If you are planning to say "I do" this summer, you might wonder if you need to add creating a MPA to your to-do list.

First, a MPA is a contract between husband and wife that classifies property (assets and liabilities) as either marital or individual, and would be reviewed by a court upon either divorce and/or death.  If property is classified as individual, then the spouse who owns the property may give it to anyone he or she wishes.  This means that the other spouse has no legal interest in the property, which is contrary to Wisconsin’s Marital Property Law.  By agreeing to classify property as individual, the spouses are forgoing his or her legal claim to the property.  Please note that marital property agreements are not always upheld in court.  Reasons for a court disregarding a couple’s stated intentions in a marital property agreement include, but are not limited to: inadequacy of counsel, no counsel, or one party did not fully disclose his or her assets.

Second, a MPA is useful when you want to deviate from Wisconsin law.  This may occur in situations with blended families or when property (i.e. farm or cabin) will be passed down the blood line and not to a surviving spouse.

Third, a MPA can say one of three things about individual property:

  • items brought to the marriage (by one or both) is individual and will stay so after marriage, everything acquired after marriage is marital;
  • items brought to and after marriage (by one or both) as well as items acquired after marriage, are individual; or
  • everything brought to and acquired after marriage are marital (useful when children may object to assets going to a step-parent) property.
People often hesitate to get a lawyer involved; we cost money and it can be an unpleasant situation.  However, if you fall into an above mentioned category, seeking counsel prior to marriage can save a lot of time, energy and heart ache.  And note, even if you did not create a MPA before saying "I do", it is not too late.  There is such a thing as a post-marital agreement.

Enjoy your summer, and have a fun time as wedding season goes into full gear.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Non-Profit Supports Grieving Parents

This past Mother's Day I read a moving article in my local news paper that profiled the parents behind the non-profit Mikayla's Grace.  Created as a method of healing after the death of their prematurely born daughter, Mike and Melissa Terrill hope to ease the pain for parents suffering a similar loss.

The couple's second pregnancy did not goes as planned, and in June 2010 their infant daughter was born 3 months premature, weighing just over 1 pound.  She lived for 36 hours.  My heart went out to this couple as I read their story.  My daughter was born 1 month premature the following month.  Unlike them, her weight was strong and she came home as planned.

In an effort to address the pain of other parents, the non-profit they created supplies boxes with items to ease the process: notebooks to write down information (ofen mom and baby are in separate rooms), a tin for a lock of hair, disposable cameras, and a kit to make an hand or food inprint).

The fact that they have turned a devastating loss into a source of comfort for others, and a way to honor their daughter, is moving.

To learn more about the program, make a donation, or help spread the word, visit

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Organ Donation Meets Facebook!

Early May brought together a life-saving cause, on-line sign up for organ donation, with an internet gorilla, Facebook.  The end result, sky rocketing numbers of people signing up on-line, via Facebook, to become an organ donor.  Previously only 2 percent of new registrations were done on-line.  And if my math is correct, it was a 93 percent increase after the first day (from 400 registrants to 6,000).

The Facebook application allows adults in 22 states to consent to be an organ donor through an on-line registry.  Wisconsin offers one program; and I blogged about it last year.  My blog did not have the Facebook effect.  But getting the word out is important.

I am not the biggest fan of Facebook; it seems to bring out sophomoric behavior in otherwise lovely adults.  But the results of its latest application are wonderful.  Kuddos Facebook!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

ATMS in UK Allow for Charitable Transfers

According to this story, beginning this summer, UK residents will be able to transfer funds to 8 charities (yet to be selected) at ATM machines.  The English government's hope is to increase giving.  The idea is intriguing.  But I wonder how it will pan out.  Giving might be more direct, but will it encourage people to give?  At best it might spark impulsive donations.  Also, as a skeptical American, I wonder how those 8 charities will be selected?  Something tells me we are 5 years or less from a scandal hitting the British papers.

Charities and ATM transfers -- is it the next big thing or just a bunch of hype?  This silly song comes to find because of the part about friendship bracelets and newspapers.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Dark Side of Gifting Property

Estate planning attorneys cannot see a month pass in which someone approaches them about giving a home, cabin or farm to the next generation.  The motivation?  Usually it has to do with fears about estate taxes, nursing homes, and probate.  All too often transfers are made before speaking to an attorney.  Which typically results in a huge mess.  

  1. Gift taxes were never paid.  Yes, if you give someone $13,000 or more (in calendar year 2012) you need to tell the IRS via your tax return.  Adding kids'  name to the home deed constitutes a gift in most cases;
  2. If you put relatives on your deed to the home, cabin or farm, their legal problems are now your legal problems.  Divorce, bankruptcy, personal injury liability, even death can envelop the property;
  3. Tax credits for vets, widows, low income individuals may end; and
  4. Income tax issues can be created for the next generation if the property generates income.
A lawyer can go on and on about the ins and outs of gifting, but nothing drives the point home better than a true life situation.  Recently I read about this topic in a blog post by Ann Margaret Carrozza -- life is stranger than fiction.  

Elderly judge asks his daughter, son-in-law, and grandson to move in with him after his wife dies.  After some time he decides to gift the house to his daughter.  Then, at age 34 she dies....without a will.  The home is controlled by state statute and passes 1/2 to her husband and 1/2 to her four year old son.  Within a year the son-in-law starts dating and recommends that "dad" find a new home because having is deceased wife's father in residence is a bit uncomfortable if he brings a date home.  
The part of this story that makes my jaw drop is that this is a judge we're talking about -- lawyers are trained to see worse case scenarios.  Apparently he did not apply this to his own situation.

Image Credit:  The backyard of the author's home, which is covered by a will.

Friday, May 11, 2012

92 Year Old Suicide Kit Maker To Be Sentenced

Earlier this week I read this brief article from the LA Times.  The defendant is a 92 year old women who was charged in federal court for not paying taxes.  The taxes were associated with her pension as well as kits she sold on the internet, designed to assist those wishing to end their life.  As the article points out, prosecution for tax evasion skirts the growing political and ethical issues associated with assisted suicide.  Something tells me we'll be reading a lot more about this issue as the Baby Boomers continue to age.

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Thursday, May 10, 2012

Ways To Avoid Probate

Probate.  It's a word that sends shivers up people's spines.  As a result, many are interested in avoiding probate.  In my opinion, probate isn't all that bad.  It establishes a fund from which final bills are paid (taxes, funeral, medical, cell phone, etc).  And if you have minor children, it is the process that appoints a guardian.  However, if you are focused on avoiding or minimizing probate, consider the following:

  • gifting during life;
  • titling assets as joint ownership with the right of survivorship;
  • transfer on death deeds;
  • transfer on death (TOD) forms for brokerage accounts;
  • pay on death (POD) forms for bank or credit union accounts;
  • beneficiary forms on retirement accounts and life insurance; and
  • creating a trust during life that holds assets.
Books can and have been written on this subject.  A blog is not a substitute for a lawyer, but rather a venue to create a discussion.  Each state has its own laws that need to be followed.  But a simple tool that may be helpful is doing a cost benefit analysis.  What is the cost of a method listed above versus the cost of probate.  

In Wisconsin probate costs 0.02 percent of the probate assets (those without a form listed above).  So, if $1,000 in value goes through probate, the fee owed the court will be $2 (1,000 x .002).  Compare this with the cost of a trust for example, and you'll have a better idea of whether the probate alternative is a wise move.  Now note, probate fees vary widely from state to state.  Check with an attorney in your state to determine the rate.

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Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Planning for Incapacity

I always say that estate planning is three things, planning for illness, death and taxes.  Three things none of us will avoid.  When it comes to illness, or incapacity, I think the following documents are essential (if you live in Wisconsin):

  • power of attorney for health care;
  • living will;
  • power of attorney for finance; and
  • authorization for final disposition.
The power of attorney for health care empowers someone to speak for you when medical decisions need to be made and you are not able to respond.  A living will, also called a declaration to physicians, conveys your thoughts on end of life care to your medical team (i.e. if you are at the end of life, do you want a respirator).  The power of attorney for finance appoints someone to handle financial matters if you cannot.  Do no assume that an adult child or spouse can simply stand in for you.  They most likely cannot sign your taxes, talk with your employer about payment, handle matters related to insurance, and the list goes on.  The final form is one that says who is in charge of your burial, and allows you to note desires, such as cremation.  Remember, authority under the power of attorney ends the moment you die.  Nothing is re-established until a will is filed, which might be weeks.  This last form fills in the gap, and oversees your burial.

No, these are not cheery matters to address.  But they are critical.  You never know when another driver will cross the center line and put your world into free fall.  It happened to a relative of mine last week.  Take charge, take control, put things in place now instead of waiting for chaos to hit.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Royal Wedding Cake Slice Up For Auction

In my efforts to bring new and informative information to my Illness, Death and Taxes for the Middle Class readers, I have a Google Alert set up for the terms "wills".  And as a result, I receive a lot of updates about Prince William (commonly called Wills) and the Duchess of Cornwall (formerly Kate Middleton).  And finally I have a blog post that mentions the royal couple!

Yes, I will admit, I was one of the millions who watched the wedding live on TV.  When I saw a headline about a piece of the royal wedding cake going up for auction, I assumed that the story would say the proceeds would go to a worthy charity.  However, that does not appear to be the case.  The item was submitted anonymously and is expected to fetch 1,000 pounds.  Also included in the auction are pieces of cake from Prince Charles and Lady Diana's wedding as well as the wedding of Princess Anne.  The auction will run from May 3rd to May 24th at

Just because a charity is not mentioned, does not mean a charitable organization won't benefit.  I certainly hope one does.  What a lovely way to raise funds.

How about you?  Have you ever considered donating an item to a charitable auction?  I routinely donate certificates for 1/2 off estate planning services (for those 18 and older who live in Wisconsin) to local non-profits.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Low Cost Resource For Information On Family Estate Planning

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Are you looking for low cost, yet informative resources to learning more about estate planning for you and your family?  If so, I highly recommend the publication Family Estate Planning in Wisconsin (if you live in Wisconsin).  It is produced by the UW Extension, and is a thorough yet concise examination of the terms and concepts related to estate planning.  And at $6, you can't go wrong.  Text is accompanied by easy to read charts and graphs, which help the visual learners among us (me included).  It is available on the Extensions web site, click here for a link.

And even if you do not reside in Wisconsin, some of the general concepts are applicable in different states.  But please do keep in mind that each state has its own set of laws related to wills, powers of attorneys, trusts, probate, etc.

Friday, May 4, 2012

National Stroke Awareness Month

We are ending the week with a short pop quiz here at Illness, Death and Taxes for the Middle Class.  Here you go!

Question Number One -- When is National Stroke Awareness Month?

  1. January
  2. May
  3. December

  • Answer - May
Question Number Two -- What is the leading cause of long-term disability for adults in the US?
  1. Cancer
  2. Auto accidents
  3. Stroke
  • Answer - Stroke
Question Number Two -- What is the nation's 3rd leading killer in the US?
  1. Drug overdose
  2. Cancer
  3. Stroke
  • Answer - Stroke
Learn more about how to recognize and prevent strokes at my hospital's web site.  Thanks to the Outreach Team at Meriter for sharing this vital information.  Awareness is key to a vibrant future.

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Thursday, May 3, 2012

Methods To Scatter Ashes

For many reasons it seems that more and more people are interested in cremation when their earthly time comes to an end.  My own father opted for this method when he approached his death in 2009.  But what to do with the ashes?  Here are six ideas that I found while reading about this topic:

  1. Green burial -- place the ashes, via an urn, in a grave and have them buried.  We opted to use this approach for my father.  He and my mother will share a single plot in a cemetery where my mother's relatives rest.
  2. Trench -- dig a shallow trench, deposit the ashes, and cover.  Apparently this is popular with beach burials;
  3. Scattering via the wind -- also known as casting, it is wise to check the direction of the wind before commencing;
  4. Scattering in the water -- there are even urns designed to float for a bit and then slowly sink;
  5. Create A Ring -- involves scattering the ashes around a favorite tree or object; and
  6. Scatter from an airplane -- will require you to obtain access to a plane, and may require professional assistance.

Image credit: www.sxc.-hu - free image

Another idea is to use a combination of these methods to deposit ashes in a variety of places that were special to the decedent.  Finally, before acting, I urge you to learn about laws related to scattering of ashes in the state or country where you intend to make the deposit.  See a previous post to learn about scattering ashes in Wisconsin.  Remember, blogs are not legal advice, just a way to engage in conversation.  Did I miss a method?  If so, please post a comment.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Optimism, It's Good For Your Heart

Last month a Harvard review reported that being optimistic is good for your heart.  According to the study, optimistic people have half the risk of a first heart attack when compared with the least optimistic.  Apparently the stress associated with a negative attitude can lead to damage of arteries and the heart itself.  When more than 2,200 people die each day of heart disease, which works out to about 1 every 39 seconds, this is an important finding.  And given my family's history of heart disease, one I plan to pay attention to!

And if optimism does not come easily, here is a wiki with 6 steps to being more optimistic.  Number 5, remembering that life is short, is something I am reminded each day I am serving client's needs.  Take some time, enjoy the little things!

Image credit: photo taken by the author, June 2011

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

What I've Been Reading: Lost and Found by Geneen Roth

If your are curious about the people who's lives were changed by the Bernie Madoff scheme, take a look at Geneen Roth's latest book, Lost and Found.  Part memoir, part exploration of women and money issues, it is an interesting read.  What struck me the most was how a prominent author and her circle of successful friends had such little knowledge of money matters, including estate planning.

Towards the end of the book, Roth tells the story of how her father showed her a will that indicated his estate would be split between his 4th wife, the author, and her brother.  However, upon death she learned that the vast majority of his wealth was held in a retirement account, of which the only beneficiary was his 4th wife.  He was a man who had worked extensively with estate plans, it was clear the designation was not an oversight.  The pain, rejection, and confusion felt by the author is intense.  The passage underscores a few key concepts for me:

  • some children, especially in blended families, have a strong desire to receive an inheritance, driven by emotional needs upon the death of a parent;
  • successful people may know little to nothing about estate planning -- the distinction between probate and non-probate assets is essential, and can greatly impact who receives what upon death; and
  • parents should make a decision about telling children about the specifics of an estate plan.  In some situations explaining a decision to leave assets to a new spouse may be wise, and it others it may not.  Consideration should be given if you want to minimize the emotional impact, and possibly head off any litigation over your estate.
Estate plans tell a court who should do what, with what, when you die.  They can also stir up unresolved emotions that have been dormant for years.