Friday, September 28, 2012

What I've Been Reading: The Hoarder in You

This past week I read the book The Hoarder in You: How to live a happier, healthier, uncluttered life by Dr. Robin Zasio.  My initial interest in the book was personal -- I am always seeking out ways to keep the chaos of life to a minimum. However, the chaos addressed in this book is well beyond the paper piles and toy explosions (we have children ages 4 and 2) typical in our home.  The pages address those who cannot enter rooms in their home because the piles of "stuff" won't allow a door to open or people who cannot stand to throw out fast food containers.  I was delighted to realize my hoarding was no where near that of many Americans.

However, this book is useful for those with relatives who may have hoarding issues.  As an estate planning and probate attorney I regularly hear stories from children or siblings concerned about a loved one.  That concern is often articulated in a form of a question "what are we going to do with their home?".  Now I can point them to this book, which is full of lists, resources, and action steps.  I especially liked the discussion on how to address peoples fears of throwing something out -- what if I need it?

As always, planning ahead will save time and money.  If you have a loved one who falls into the hoarder spectrum, give some thought now to how you can address the issue before you are in a crisis situation (i.e. untimely death or nursing home admission).  Starting with this book would be a good first step.  My copy was from the local library....a great way to keep the clutter down in a home, borrow instead of purchase!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Seniors, Independence, and Saying Good-bye to the Car Keys

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Buried in today's Wisconsin State Journal was an Associated Press article addressing the topic of when and why families should move to take the car keys away from failing seniors.  America, especially here in the vast Midwest, has a love affair with cars.  Age 16 marks a significant step towards independence when drivers license are issued.  But what about the decades that follow?  When should a person's car independence be curtailed?

Recently I posed this very question to my mother's hospitalist (sort of the primary care doctor when a patient is in the hospital).  Should she be driving was my question.  His response did not help me much:  I have no evidence to give the Department of Transportation that her license should be taken away, but that does not mean she is a good driver.

According to the article, I am not alone.  "600,000 older drivers a year quit because of health conditions.  But there are no clear-cut guidelines to tell who needs to -- and quitting too soon can be detrimental to someone who might have functioned well for longer."

As I type I can hear my husband in my head; an avid bike commuter for many years, he associates many societal problems with our dependence on cars.  Sadly it appears that for seniors to remain independent in many areas of the country, driving is essential, even though that one skill may be failing faster than other abilities.

While doctors can have a strong influence on this decision, many remain silent.  One question than can pose, which was posed to me -- would the person be allowed to drive with grandchildren in the car?  If no, then the answer is evident on whether the senior should continue driving.  But then what?  How will doctors visits be met, groceries purchased, errands run?  Thanks to the internet many things can be delivered, but not everything.  Our family is addressing this question at the moment, as are hundreds of thousand across the country.

Do you have a story to share?  A tip for making this transition easier?  Please post and share with others.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Upcoming Seminar at Holy Wisdom Monastery

As the fall colors emerge on the trees, I am delighted to have an upcoming seminar scheduled for Holy Wisdom Monastery.  The location is amazing, nestled on a woody hill with Lake Mendota in the distance.  As you can see from the announcement, I will be speaking about the basics of estate planning and probate within the context of leaving a legacy of love.

A continued theme in my speaking and writing practice is that anyone, not just those with billions, can leave a legacy.  If your organization would be interested in a similar presentation, please feel free to contact me to discussion content options and scheduling.

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Tuesday, September 25, 2012


Last week I read a wonderful story in my beloved Washington Post; an effort is underway to add a day of charitable giving to the phenomenon of "black Friday" and "cyber Monday".  The effort behind #GivingTuesday is to increase awareness about the option of spending your holiday dollars through charitable contributions instead or, on in addition to, holiday gifting.

As I commented on the article, this is not a new idea to my family.  Several years ago we opted out of the extended family gift exchanges.  Now we buy a few simple gifts for our young children, and everything else we would have spent is direct to charities that meant something to us over the past year.  Gone are waiting in long lines, mounds of discarded wrapping paper, and stress about what to get for the people who have everything they need and want.  We have replaced it with an evening by the fire, sipping wine, writing out a few checks, and talking with our children about the causes we feel are important.

Some have said we are robbing our children of the "Christmas experience".  I disagree.  There are a few gifts to open --- one of the heart, one for the mind, and one for the soul.  On top of that we are instilling in them that anyone can make a difference in our world, not just those with billions.  And the spirit of giving has never been greater felt in our home.  This is not a fit for every household, but I encourage you to give it some thought.

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Monday, September 24, 2012

Legal Humor for Monday the 24th of September

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Hello and welcome to another week of blogging on Illness, Death and Taxes for the Middle Class.  For most of you it is just another Monday, for me however, it is a day off.  Why?  It's my birthday, and I know all to well from my work with estate planning that birthdays should be treasured.  Written in advance so that I could take some time off, today's post shares a link to a delightful legal jokes!  This page has some great ones related to estate planning; I especially like the one entitled "estate planning mom".  Enjoy  your Monday, and check back on Tuesday for more substantive posts.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Trivia Night to Benefit Dane County Libraries

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If trivia games are your thing, and you are a fan of public libraries, combine your passions and sign up for October 20th!  Teams are forming around Dane County, and funds raised from a fun night of trivia with benefit Dane County libraries.  Sadly my husband and I have other plans for the evening, otherwise we'd be forming a team.

If you are outside of Dane County or cannot attend, keep the following in mind as ways to support a great non-profit cause, your public library:

  • direct your personal representative to donate your book collection to a library for their "second hand" sales;
  • designate 10% of your life insurance to your local library system; or
  • if you are downsizing, hold a garage sale and advertise that all proceeds will be donated to the local library.
Remember, philanthropic behavior is not reserved for the mega-wealthy -- it is in reach of everyone.  Enjoy your weekend!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Wisconsin's Funeral Trust Fund

Earlier this week I posted on the investigation into Wisconsin's Funeral Trust, which is apparently short $21 million.  Here is a wonderful overview of the situation, posted on the Wills, Trusts & Estates Professor Blog.

Clients often ask me if pre-paying a funeral is a good idea.  I always have two words of caution: one, your desires for burial may change over time, so keeping your options open (i.e. not pre-paying is nice); and two, you are turning over control of your money to someone else.  Sadly, the second one has more of a sting to it these days in Wisconsin.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

What Are Estate of Checking Accounts

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An "estate of checking account" is simply a basic checking account that is opened when a person dies, and is a key part of the probate process.  Probate, the process by which the deceased's assets are transferred to the heirs (determined either by will or if none, state statute) and final bills are paid.  To accomplish this, the personal representative (what Hollywood calls the Executor) needs to open  the "estate of checking".

In Wisconsin, a domiciliary letter from the court appointing the PR is needed as well as a tax ID number. One can obtain that on their own, via an attorney, or sometimes as a service of the banking hosting the account.  A practice tip I offer, have the estate checking account at a bank where you do not bank, or is you do, make sure the checks are extremely different than yours.  Too often I have seen PR's confuse the checkbooks and write a check from the wrong account.

Typical deposits include:

  • balance of deceased's checking, savings, money market, accounts that did not have a beneficiary form;
  • proceeds from the sale of a home, car, personal belongings;
  • refund checks associated with canceled insurance policies, subscriptions, etc.; and
  • income tax refunds.
The estate of checking is also used to bay bills:
  • filing fees with the court;
  • attorney fees;
  • final bills to credit card, taxes, phone, utilities, etc.; and
  • write checks distributing the assets to the heirs.
The goal is to have all money in and all money out equal zero when the probate is closed.  And that is a general overview of an estate checking account.  It is essential that you speak with an attorney, licensed in the state where the deceased lived, to make sure you are following all state requirements -- do not rely on a blog as it is not legal advice.  Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Middle Class Philanthropy: Garage Sales and Giving

Whether it is during your life or at your death, philanthropic giving is within the reach of everyone through the art of a well designed garage sale.  They are great ways to give tangible items a second life, while clearing out your home or that of a loved one.  And, when done with a slight twist, promote your legacy.  Instead of pocketing the proceeds, designate them to a favorite charity.  Keep the following ideas in mind if you opt to try a sale for your favorite cause:

  • hold the sale in a high traffic area (busy road, ask a community center or church or school to donate space for the sale);
  • skip the pricing and simply ask people to make is for charity;
  • see if a local bagel shop or bakery will donate food to sell, or ask friends to bake items for sale;
  • sell brown garbage bags for $8 or $10 and allow people to fill them up for that price;
  • in the last 2 hours slash prices by 50% or more (if you are pricing);
  • have literature on hand about the charitable organization your are raising funds for;
  • offer a way for people to make a direct donation to the non-profit (i.e. computer on hand for on-line pledges); 
  • hold the sale in conjunction with another event associated with the cause, such as its annual 5k; and
  • have a donation center lined up for items that do not sell.
Have an idea I missed?  Post a comment and share.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Wisconsin's Pre-paid Funeral Fund Under Investigation

Over the weekend news broke that the pre-paid funeral trust fund, marketed by the Wisconsin Funeral Directors Association is short $21 million!  Currently under investigation by the Wisconsin Department of Justice and the Department of Financial Institutions, the fund is being viewed something like a Ponzi scheme because its assets may not cover the expenses of those consumers who paid into the fund.
Sold through local funeral homes, the fund allows consumers to to prepay for funerals and have costs covered upon death. It now appears that consumers initial payment may not be recovered.

This is a developing news story (two articles are linked below). If you or a loved one has paid into this fund, i advise you to follow the news and check back to this blog for updates.

Monday's story
Weekend story

Estate Plans and Blended Families

Blended families, those that have children from outside the marriage, are more and more common these days.  Marriages can be "seconds" for one or both spouses.  And sometimes they bring a child(ren) from a prior relationship or marriage into the mix.  I myself was raised in a blended family.  When my parents married in 1970 my father had a 7 year old son from his first marriage.  Three years later, I joined the clan, putting 10 years in age between myself and my sibling.  Other folks marry later in life, following the death of a spouse, and bring adult children to the marriage.  What happens when that parent dies?

Unless a will and pre-planning has occurred, state statues will control the distribution of those assets.  The new spouse may inherit everything.  Or, the children from the first marriage may have inheritance rights to all or a share of the decedent's assets.  What is important is for blended families to sit down, look at all of the assets, and ask "what do we want to happen when the first of us dies?".  Once those answers are ironed out, put the plan into legal form with the assistance of an estate planning attorney in your state.  And if the discussion is not going well, seek counsel of an attorney to help guide you through stalemates and pitfalls.  Remember, if you do nothing, state statues will control....not you.

For more reading on planning for blended families, check out this article, with special attention to the book by Richard E. Barnes.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Study: Loneliness a Predictor of Functional Decline and Death

Earlier this week a mass email was sent out to the members of Prairie UU, where my husband and I are members.  Often times the messages relate to a request for assistance with yard work while recovering from surgery, announcing a birth/marriage/death in a family, or spreading the word about a great movie playing in theaters.  This email contained a link to a NY Times article reviewing a recent study published in JAMA.

Researchers have shown that loneliness in people age 60 and older is a predictor of functional decline and death.  According to the study, chronic loneliness is connected to a host of health concerns (high blood pressure, coronary disease, etc.).  And interestingly, many of those who reported being lonely were married or living with someone; alone does not mean you are lonely.  For those seeking to age with grace or keeping a watchful eye on a elder in the family, this article is highly informative.  The bottom line I took from the article was to find ways to connect with other people.  Focus on medical measurements is important, but relationships, quality ones, play a very important role in our lives.  Don't neglect connections with others.

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So it seems perfect that this evening I will be joining a group of women for an annual evening out at American  Players Theater in Spring Green.  Annual traditions, good food, culture, the outdoors, and female friends -- its just what the doctor ordered (or should have).  Enjoy your weekend, and I'll be back Monday with more thought on illness, death and taxes for the middle class.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Heart Walk 2012 Update

I am delighted to report that the generosity out there is amazing.  With one month to go, I have exceeded my fundraising goal of $500 for the American Heart Association!  How high can we go?  Pledge on-line if you'd like to support my fundraising effort.  And if a donation is not possible, take yourself for a walk this late summer day.  It's good for your heart!

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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Green Burials in Wisconsin

I was pleasantly surprised to read this feature story on a man I know well.  After retiring from his Social Worker position at UW Hospital, he transitioned into his new role at Natural Path Sanctuary -- currently Wisconsin's only green cemetery.  Interestingly, green burials are not "new", but more of a return to historical ways of putting a loved one to rest.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Care Support Teams: Include a Pet Sitter

Last week my mother entered the Emergency Room, and as is usually the case in her situation, she was admitted and has had a lengthy stay.  Widowed, she lives alone with her two cats, one of which is diabetic and requires shots twice a day.  My mother's emergency hospital stay unveiled a gap in our family's care support team....a quality pet sitter.  We now have one, and I urge you to give this some advance thought if you or a loved one has a pet, especially one with special needs.  What will happen to the pet in the event of an unexpected hospital stay?   Here are a few tips on locating someone to join your team; contact:

  • a local rescue organization for names of pet sitters;
  • local veterinary school or vet tech program;
  • post a query on Facebook or other social media;
  • send an email to a list serve through your place of worship; and
  • post an ad on

Monday, September 10, 2012

What I've Been Reading: Mindfulness

Over the weekend I quickly "read" the book Mindfulness: an eight-week plan for finding peace in a frantic world by Mark Williams and Danny Penman.  Several times I ear marked a page thinking "yes, that is exactly my problem".  One that stood out was related to the "doing mode" we tend to find ourselves in when caring for others.  There are the children, the aging parents, the career, the marriage.  The authors point out how we tell ourselves it is temporary.  But is it really?  Does a reprieve ever arrive?

While I am not inclined to embark on an eight-week journey they provide (too rigid for me, an already rigid Type A personality), it does underscore in my mind the important role meditation and mindfulness play in my life.  Recently added to my daily routine, I will continue to read, explore, and try new practices in an effort to  ease the stress of daily life.

This is a nice book for anyone looking for a structured approached to meditation and mindfulness as well as those who are curious about the inner dialogue present in so many peoples' minds these days.  Happy reading.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Middle Class Philanthropy

"If you can't feed a hundred people, then feed just one". -Mother Teresa

And with this quote I started my current book project.  With the working title Middle Class Philanthropist, my goal is to shake up how people think about philanthropy.  It is not just for the mega wealthy.  Thrilled to have finished my first draft, I am now distributing it to some trusted reviewers for thoughts and comments.  A re-write is planned for this winter, and publication is set for Summer 2013.

One step closer to publication, I still love hearing stories of how simple donations make a big difference in the world of non-profits.  Let me know if you have a story to share!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Rummage Sale Benefits JDRF!

Nothing warms my heart and fuels my sense of optimism more than stories related to charitable giving!  My most recent example is from my very own neighborhood.  Just down the road a family, who are friends of ours, and preparing their garage for a rummage sale.  All proceeds will go to Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation in an effort to find a cure.  And for this family the cure would mean a world of difference for their middle child.  Diagnosed just over a year ago, his family has been at his side and is fighting for change.  Not only will they walk as a family in an upcoming event, they are giving two days of their lives to transform discarded items into money to fund research.  I've dropped off several bags for them to sell, and my local readers have a chance to shop at the end of this week.  The sale will be held from 8am - 2pm on Friday, September 7th and Saturday September 8th and is located at 5110 Marathon Drive (just off of Whitney Way on Madison's west side).  Check it out if you can, and spread the word to those who might be interested.  A dollar here and a dollar there adds up...together we can change this young man's world.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Travel Checklist Addition

Planning a fall getaway?  This time of year many folks take a long weekend to enjoy fall colors or simply escape the routine of life before the snow flies and travel is more hazardous.  If so, one item you may want to add to your "packing list" is a copy of your most recent power of attorney for health care.  Having a hard copy or electronic version (check to make sure these are allowed under the law of the state where you live) can save hours if not more should you find yourself in the ER.  Without proper documents your traveling partner may have no legal right to make decisions for you, even if s/he is your spouse.

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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

What I've Been Reading -- Confessions of a Surgeon

Over the long weekend I finished the book Confessions of a Surgeon: the good, the bad, and the behind the OR doors by Paul A. Ruggieri, MD. 

It was a fantastic book!

Well written, honest, insightful, and a bit scary because it gives you a glimpse into the ORs of modern day America. I am very happy I read this AFTER having had two c-sections. I also found the book highly informative, and am now well armed with questions should I or a loved one need to hire a surgeon. For example, I want to know the surgeons complication rate for the procedure. If they respond "none" I now know they are a) lying to me to cover something up, or 2) have not done nearly enough of these to be a skilled surgeon. I certainly don't want to be their first complication. Through error wisdom is born.

The only negative thing about the book were a few parts where the author was recounting a conversation, often during surgery. To me the recount seemed more op-ed than the true form of an actual conversation. To the author's credit, I've read that conversation is one of the hardest things to write.

I highly recommend this book as it is both entertaining and informative!