Monday, August 27, 2012

Taking A Summer Vacation

The outgoing message on my email and voice mail alert those trying to contact me that I am "out of the office" until Tuesday, September 4th.  For those who've heard the message, they assume I am taking a long vacation.  No, I'm not.  The time has been blocked off to allow me a chance to focus on a large project that has been on again off again for several years.  I'm writing book.  A little one.  The topic is how anyone, even the middle class, can be philanthropic.  So, in an effort to give my writing all I have, I've decided to take a break from both of my blogs until Tuesday, September 4th.  I told myself that I'd have a draft by the end of summer.  And summer's end is quickly approaching.

Thanks for checking in, and I'll be back after Labor Day with new thoughts.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Codicil: What It Is And What It Does

Codicil is a fancy word for an amendment to a will.  Executed in the same manner as a will, meaning a date and signature witnessed by two people (those are Wisconsin requirements), it modifies an existing will.  So, if you want to change the person named as guardian for a minor child, the back-up personal representative, of the percentage of your estate you are leaving to the local humane society -- a codicil is an easy fix.  A new will is probably not needed.

I do encourage you to seek the counsel of an attorney licensed in your state, one who focuses on estate planning and probate.  When making changes on your own, you risk invaliding a current will or creating confusion if the amendment is not clear.

Thanks for reading, and have a great weekend.

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Thursday, August 23, 2012

One Lucky Dog in Texas

A common question posed by clients is "can I do that?".  More often than not the answer is yes, as long as it doesn't violate public policy.  Estate planning, the process by which you create a will or trust, allows a person to take charge of a situation and tell the court what to do with his/her stuff when s/he dies.

Case in point, a man in Texas recently died and left all of his possessions to a trust for his dog.  The man's partner had predeceased, and those possessions consisted of enough antiques and collectibles to fill ten houses.  Various estate sales followed, with proceeds going to the dog's trust.  And as a trust must eventually end, upon the dog's death, the remaining balance will be distributed to the man's midwestern nieces and nephews.

So yes, you can do that if you mean can I leave my stuff to my dog, or cat, or bird.  Estate planning is about taking control.

Oh, and for the record, the dog above is named Lucky.  Appropriate wouldn't you say!

Image credit: - free image.  A random dog, which reminds me of the dogs of my childhood.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Americans Living Longer, Fitter, Wealthier Lives

Surprise would be the adjective I'd used to describe myself after reading this blurb on NPR's web site; older Americans are living longer, with more money, and are more fit than prior generations.  I should probably qualify the adjective, pleasantly surprised.  According to the study cited, Americans live longer, are healthier, and have more money than prior generations of elders.  Better health is attributed to advances in cardiac and stroke health care, and more money is associated with the fact more women work (in advanced years) than ever before.

While there is still room for improvement on obesity rates, the news is refreshing.  If you are 65 today, you can expect to enjoy another 20 years of life.  Not quite as long as the number one ranked nation, Japan, where their current 65 year olds can expect to celebrate an 89th birthday.

So, if one makes it to 65, there is a good chance they'll close in on an 85th or 90th birthday.  With that advancement will come other social changes.  Later retirements, greater need for money tucked away for retirement, voting blocks.

As I make my way through another work week, I'm pleased to read some positive is too infrequent.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

What Is Conspicuous Giving

Charitable giving is a side interest of mine, so much so that I am currently writing a book on how philanthropy is not out of reach for those in the middle class.  So, this article caught my attention.   A play on the phrase "conspicuous consumption" (buying to get attention) springs the term "conspicuous giving", whereby donations of time or money are made to get positive attention.

Oddly, my family has walked away from the conspicuous consumption associated with the winter holidays; except for a few small gifts for our small children, we write checks to non-profits that touched our lives that year.  We are not giving to seek approval. In fact, we upset quite a few people with the decision.  Comments like "you are robbing your children of's horrible" filled the holiday air.

The one time I felt pressure to give was when I worked for the Wisconsin Government and it was the combined campaign.  Essentially government agencies competed with one another to see which could have the highest percentage of giving to the United Way with direct payments on pay day.  I opposed this type of giving and opted out.  I caused a wrinkle in the office, and my Director was not pleased.  I give.  I give on my own for reasons I want.  Giving so that an organization can "win" a competition doesn't work for me.

Why people give interests me.  Why do you give?

  • habit
  • makes you feel good
  • support a cause that is important to a friend or loved one
  • recognition
  • tax break
  • other?
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Monday, August 20, 2012

Can't You Just Look It Up?

Certain professions lend themselves to being the go-to person for answers at family gatherings.  CPAs are likely questioned about whether something was a legitimate tax write off.  Doctors are quizzed about a mysterious pain somewhere on a party goers body.  And lawyers are asked about the law.  Sadly our answers usually result in irritation rather than satisfaction.  For example:

Party Goer:  Hey Melinda, you're a lawyer, right?

Melinda:  Yes....I focus on wills, powers of attorney, probate....basically illness, death and taxes.

Party Goer:  Okay....I got a question for you.  I work with this guy who is going through a divorce in Florida.  And his employer instituted a new "no leave" policy because of the recession.  And this guy hurts his back driving to a seminar in Texas, and now he can't work.  The employer should have to pay him, right?

Melinda: Well, it depends.

Party Goer:  What do you mean.  Go look it up in a book -- isn't that what law school taught you?

Melinda:  Actually no, it taught me how to think like a lawyer.  As long as the courts and legislators are open for business, the law is in constant flux.  As I launch into a discussion about the legal process and why I can't answer this "simple" question, the party goer's eye glaze over.

Law school takes a normal human being and transforms him or her into an attorney.  The best description I've heard of it, is it it like being on Jeopardy while going through Boot Camp.  We read books, but not to memorize laws.  We read to learn about issues, spot problems, analyze and argue.  Many cases I read were from England in the 1700 and 1800s.....slightly outdated, but valuable in the concepts they highlight.

So, the next time you ask a lawyer a "simple" question, don't be annoyed when he or she says "it depends".  That is the truth.  Law is about arguments, about the gray matter of the world.  As a favorite law professor of mine said, "if you think law is like a bus schedule, you are in the wrong place."

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Friday, August 17, 2012

Three Reasons To Make Copies of Beneficiary Forms

We live in an electronic age, but there is still a place for paper.  Real paper.  I'm married to an electrical engineer, and this fact baffles him.  Here are three reasons why I advise my clients to keep copies of beneficiary forms.

  1. It confirms the forms say what you think they say.  Remember, the form controls.  So, if an ex-partner is listed, s/he will inherit under the form should you die. Beneficiary forms trump wills.  You'd be surprised how many of my clients are shocked to discover their forms do not say what they thought they did.
  2. Copies provide a trail for your loved one upon your death.  Jobs change, careers change, and over a lifetime you can leave a mess of IRAs, 401ks, and insurance policies scattered about your career path.  You may know where they are, but if you're dead, who else will know?
  3. A hard copy beneficiary is a way for you to make the financial institution accountable.  Don't count on them not misplacing the form.  They can, and they do.  I've seen it countless times.  Without one, one of two things happen; the assets fall into probate or they are distributed according to a plan the financial institution establishes (i.e. nearest living blood relative).  Recent years have shown us that financial institutions are flawed.  Don't trust them not to loose key documents.
And there are the three reasons why I advocate for making hard copies of your beneficiary forms.  With that I'll leave you to your weekend.  Enjoy, and thanks for reading.

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Thursday, August 16, 2012

Five Things Your Personal Representative Should Know

If you are reading this blog, chances are estate planning is an interest to you.  If so, go beyond the formal documents (wills, trusts, powers of attorney) and think about the practical aspects of your life that you should convey to your personal representative (that's the person who administers an estate, Hollywood calls it the Executor).  Here are 5 things I encourage my clients to share with their PR (either via conversation or in a letter):

  1. The location of your will -- the original that is, not a copy;
  2. What bills are set up for auto debit from a checking or credit card account -- forwarding the mail is not like it used to be;
  3. Names and addresses for friends and family who should be notified of your passing.  Smartphones are nifty, but trouble lurks.  I keep a print out of my holiday card mailing list, with a note to send them a copy of my obituary.
  4. Name of your accountant along with one or two years of previous returns; and
  5. Name of your veterinarian as well as notes on any pets that have medicines or special food.
The list goes on, but these are five that I feel strongly about.  Remember, a blog is not a replacement for an attorney.   It is best to seek counsel from a lawyer in your state.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

It's Heart Walk Time!

When you spend your professional hours focused on illness, death and taxes, you want your non-work hours to be as positive and as fulfilling as possible.  So, when I have a chance to be both healthy and charitable at the same time it is a win win.

There are countless worthy causes in this world, but there is only one for which I solicit donations.  The American Heart Association's Annual Heart Walk.  Held in October, I have been walking for upwards of 15 years.  The impetus for my devotion to this walk was formed in the fall of 1991.  Having just entered my freshmen year at the University of Wisconsin, I got a call one Friday morning from my dad.  Instantly I knew something was wrong; my mother was at the hospital with an apparent heart attack.  She was only 47.  As heart attacks go, it was not as bad as it could be, but it was still a heart attack.  That same worry was heard in my father's voice seventeen years later when I got a similar call.  This time she had passed out at home.  An ambulance was called and the doctors were saying a pacemaker was needed.  Both of my parents were scared and told the doctors "talk with our daughter, see what she says".  The call came around 6:30pm that night.  In no uncertain terms, the physician on the other end of the line said "mama, I don't want to be dramatic here, but your mother nearly died today.  Her heart is going too slow.  She needs this pacemaker, and she needs it now".  I didn't waiver and said prep for surgery.  At the time I was 7 1/2 months pregnant with my first child.  The moment stands out like crystal in a cabinet.  Her procedure was scheduled for the next morning, but she didn't make it through the night before her heart slowed once again.  An external pacemaker was set up until she went into surgery.  That was four years ago.  And my mom is still with us.  She lived to meet her first grandchild, a boy, and a granddaughter who joined the family in 2010.  Sadly, my father died in 2009, never meeting his only granddaughter.

As you can probably tell, I have a self-interest in seeing the American Heart Association succeed in education, outreach, and research.  Advancements in cardiac care have kept my mother alive.  Help me help others, and make a contribution to my 2013 walk.  You can pledge on-line or send a check payable to AHA (mail to my office, 313 Price Place, Suite 204, Madison, WI, 53705).  My goal is to raise $500 (that breaks down to $10 from 50 people). If you can't donate, consider walking in your local Heart Walk.  Support does make a difference in the lives of many.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Downside to Avoiding Probate

Probate, it is a word that causes the hair on the back of someone's neck to stand up.  But it shouldn't.  It is just probate. Sure, I am an estate planning and probate attorney, but I routinely see how fear of probate is used to sell people pricey trusts they most likely do not need.  Plus, avoiding probate can generate new problems.  If there is no probate, there is also no "dom letter".

The "dom letter", technically called the domiciliary letter, is an order issued by the court empowering the personal representative to handle an estate.  Essentially it give the personal representative (what Hollywood calls the Executor) authority to close accounts, pay bills, sell property, etc.

Just yesterday I saw a post on the attorney list serve -- how can we get the post office to change a decedent's mailing address when there is no dom letter?  The decedent had transferred all assets via beneficiary forms.  Likely thinking this will save money once I'm gone, the unexpected happens.  Without said letter mailing addresses can't be changed.  Good luck opening a safe deposit box.  Try and shut off the cable or cancel a cell phone. Sometimes a death certificate is enough, but more times than not it is insufficient.

Lawyers are trained to foresee problems, and this is one of them.  Avoiding probate can create more problems than it solves.  To be certain, seek the counsel of an estate planning and probate attorney in your area.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Flying Solo: An Attorney, a newsletter, and a business plan

I've had more than one conversation in my life follow the dialogue below, which is probably par for the course when you are self-employed attorney:

Person:  So, what type of work do you do?
Me:  I'm an attorney.
Person:  Really, what kind?
Me:  Estate planning -- wills, powers of attorney, probate when it's needed.
Person: Oh, what firm do you work for?
Me:  Myself -- I hung out a shingle in 2005 and have always worked on my own.
Person:  Wow, that's risky -- how do you get clients!

The last phrase is more of a statement rather than question.  I've observed more than once a person's head retreat backward a bit upon hearing my profession is an attorney.  Layering on top of that fact that I am a solo practitioner makes their eyes open a bit wider.  A grunt like gasp usually makes for a trifecta when I answer their inevitable question, what does your husband do.  Like me, he is self-employed.  Not as an attorney, but as an electrical engineer (if you need a circuit board designed or debugged, check out his business -- Four Lakes Technology).  A dual self-employed household with two small children may seem crazy and risky to some, but we love it. Sure, we are often tired.  But we have a passion for what we do, and never dread going into the office.

As for the question, how do you get clients.  There is no one answer.  Excellent customer service tops the list; word of mouth is a powerful tool.  If I do my job well, clients not only return, but give my name to family and friends.  A close second is speaking at seminars, often free and open to the public.  Lawyers are supposed to give back to the community, and one way I fulfill this commitment is to distribute useful information on illness, death and taxes.  From my client base and seminar attendees, I generate a mailing list. And this is my third method of securing clients -- an annual newsletter.  Quite simple, but highly effective.  The 2012 edition is hitting mailboxes across Wisconsin in the coming weeks.  And you can read it on-line as well.

Image credit: - free image

Happy Monday -- have a great week, and thanks for reading.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Death As Our Adviser - Frank Ostaseki

Often times my husband speaks of his desire to see humanity cure aging, and with it will comes life spans of several hundred years.  Of course accidents would remain a threat, but humans would experience something new and grand.  While not dying has its appeal, I always responded with "doesn't death make us appreciate life".  In more elegant terms are these words by Frank Ostaseski:

Thanks to Kate, a friend on Facebook, who posted this link.  Very moving words.  Enjoy your weekend, and I'll be back Monday with more thoughts, lessons, and reflections.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Wills Go On-Line

Recently it seems that a lot of local government offices are jumping on the bandwagon to scan documents, such as deeds, marriage licenses, and wills, and provided them for a fee on-line.  The fee is split with the company that runs the site and the government office.  It is a revenue generator, and a great boost to genealogy buffs.  A wealth of information, for a relatively small fee, without having to leave the comfort of their home den.

But, this news also raises the hairs on the back of my neck.  When you are trained to see bad scenarios and then plan accordingly, my mind generates possibilities at lightening speed.  For example, decades ago it was common place to include Social Security Numbers in a will.  Tucked away in a bankers box in a remote government office is one thing, but what will happen once they are scanned and easy to post and share?  Most everyone has some relative that spends far too much time posting scanned photos and images onto Facebook.  Will that person have enough common sense not to post Great Grandma's will that contains not only a complete listing of her twelve children, but their SSNs too?

Time will tell.  Progress is great, but also comes with some headaches.  Thanks for reading!

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Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Middle Class Philanthropist: Charity Navigator's Latest Report

Philanthropy is not reserved for those with a seven figure net worth.  Anyone, even those snuggled in the middle class can be philanthropic.  And when it comes to giving to charities, many Americans turn to Charity Navigator for an evaluation of an organization.

Out this past week, Charity Navigator released it's list of the Top 5 Cities For Charitable Performance.  Out of thirty, the following were at the top of the list:

  1. Houston;
  2. Kansas City;
  3. St. Louis;
  4. Cincinnati; and
  5. Portland.
Offering a positive spin in the fact that some organizations are thriving in an otherwise challenging economy was a pleasant change of pace in the news media.  And if you too would like to help support a cause, Charity Navigator my be a useful evaluation tool of where to put your hard earned dollars.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Grandma Wanted You To Have....

Sitting in a Culver's on I-94 East this past weekend, I noticed what seemed to be a glum family gathering.  Two couples, one child, and discussion of "she wanted you to have this ring.....but it is way too big for you." It was the tacked on phrase that really caught in my ear.

Dining alone as I drove back from a weekend respite in St. Paul, my attention was pulled towards what appeared to be estate planning in action.  Back in law school there was a term, law in action.  It was when the stuff on the books took form and unfolded in real life.  In an attempt to give this family privacy, I turned back to reading the news on my phone, but my imagination was already ignited.

Were they sisters?  Was it mom or Grandma who died?  Is the older one the Personal Representative?  Do these women get along, or is this a really tense meeting.  My guess was the later, with the small child providing a much needed distraction.

Stuff -- jewelry, bedroom sets, dishes, guns, figurines. We amass it over a lifetime, and sometimes upon death it can cause huge arguments in families.  A lightening rod for all the repressed anger and tension over which child was loved for or given special treatment.  Accusations about "loans" made by mom and dad fly; words, insults and profanity tossed around, often with regret.

One does not one to think of their loved ones engaging in such behavior, but the loss of a parent, especially mom, is emotionally devastating for many.  And they don't always act their best during grief.  Anticipate the worse situation, and planning accordingly.

If  you have a will, it likely contains a clause about you creating a list of tangible personal property.  If so, create the list.  Make an inventory of what is special and state who it should pass to upon your death.  Don't let the kids figure it out.  Skip the post-it notes.  Make it legal.  And asking your attorney for the steps specific to your state is key -- remember, a blog post is not an attorney.

Image Credit: - free image

Monday, August 6, 2012

Organ Donation - It's Everywhere

Why do things happen in threes?  I have no clue, but when they do my attention is captured.  Two weeks ago I ran the Capital City 5K, which raises awareness and funds for the National Kidney Foundation.  Later a book came in for me at the library, The Organ Donor Experience by Katrina A. Bramstedt and Rena Down. It explores the motivation behind 22 organ donors. And then my husband sent me an article about Vice President Dick Cheney, who recently received a heart transplant.  Organ donation -- it seems to be everywhere.  From the whirlwind emerged several thoughts:

  • admiration for the women who ran next to me at the 5K.  About my age, she ran with two young children who were wearing t-shirts in thanks for their father being saved by a liver transplant two months ago.  Damn, she ran as well as me while pushing two kids and has a husband recovering from a major illness.  Hats off to her, and motivation for me to increase my speed.  What possibly could distract me more than her?
  • compassion for families of those who became a donor at death.  Even if the human quest to end aging is achieved, life will happen in the form of tragic accidents.  Taking those too young, but giving the opportunity to give the gift to life to another through organ transplant.
  • contemplation about the future of organ donation.  I have already had one client who wanted to restrict organ donation to organizations that are non-for-profit.  What might the coverage of Dick Cheney's, a polarizing personality, heart transplant mean for future donors.  Hopefully nothing, but might people want to restrict donations based on requirements -- age, gender, religion?  Also, the question of whether organs will continue to be transplanted.  Instead might we simply "grow" someone a new heart, lung, liver?

And those are the types of things that spin around in my mind, the mind of a lawyer who spends her work week talking about illness, death and taxes.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Movement on the Federal Estate Tax

As summer begins to wind down, news out of Washington crops up on the estate tax.  Combined with the broader issue of the Bush Era tax cuts, the House of Representatives voted earlier this week to extend those breaks through 2013.  If passed by the Senate and signed by the President, it means the current law on the federal estate tax would remain for another year.  Estates below $5 million would be exempt.  Couples under $10 million would be exempt.  Estates exceeding the exemption would face a 35 percent tax on the amount exceeding the limit.

It's not law yet.  I doubt we'll have a signed law before the November elections, but then again Washington can surprise us at times.

Enjoy your weekend, and thanks for reading.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Heart of Estate Planning - Anticipate and Plan

On a daily basis I find myself counseling my clients about the importance of putting their wishes in writing.  Most focus on the big issues -- retirement accounts, the house, jewelry.  But I encourage them to give thought to some side issues as well.  For example, is there anyone that would or would not want at their bedside if they are fighting for their life or its their final days?  In the age of blended families this can crop up quite often.

For example, a women may have an ex-husband with whom she raised children.  How does she feel about that ex-husband being present in her hospital room?  What if he wants to be their for emotional support for their mutual children.  How might her current husband feel?  She should decide what she wants, and then put her wishes in her own writing.  Should the scenario ever develop, the power of attorney can point to her note.  The situation may still be difficult, but it will decrease perceptions that the power of attorney is "taking charge" of the situation.

Emotions run high.  Tempers swell.  Words are spoken with regret.  Anticipate situations and do your best to diffuse them.  That is the heart of estate planning.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Being A Middle Class Philanthropist: Jewish Charities Break Taboo

Reading this article I thought to myself, why is it taboo for a charity to ask a member to name it in a will?  Then I remembered that my daily questioning of people "and then who will you name if they die?" is not all that routine outside my line of work.  I'm an estate planning attorney.  Illness, death and taxes are at the forefront of my brain.  It seems natural for me to think -- how might a charitable cause fit into your estate plan?

Maybe some people don't want to face the truth that life is finite.  However, I suspect most think "I don't have anything worth giving, I'm not a Kennedy."  Considering how many of my clients start our sessions together with the statement "I don't need an estate plan, just a basic will" reinforces this belief.  Too many people think you have to have millions before you can be charitable at death.

And that is a belief I want to share.  Currently I am putting the final touches on my first draft of a anyone can be a philanthropist.  Publication is aimed for late Spring or early Summer of 2013.  Stay tuned.