Thursday, December 19, 2013

Heirs In Dispute - Sweating Over the Small Stuff


Sibling closeness I, as a mother and estate planning attorney, seek to preserve.  Take control and let them know your wishes.  If not, unpleasant disputes tend to arise.

As the mother of two young children and as an estate planning and probate attorney, I can tell you that the "stuff" in your life is most likely to ignite sibling rivalry when you die.  From jewelry to collectibles to hunting gear -- the items that hold little to no monetary value often ignite the most intense disputes when a loved one dies.

And apparently leaving tangible personal property, what we in the legal practice call your TPP, is the number one thing Baby Boomers care about leaving at death, not money.  Who gets what, that is the essential question.  When I work with my clients documents generally say "I may create an inventory form the disposes of my tangible personal property", if so, the personal representative is obligated to distribute accordingly.  And then I add to the conversation, be specific as possible, envision having to give a stranger directions to find said object.  Glossed over in the Wall Street Journal article, this is key.  When you say "I leave my ring" the attorney in me wonders: which ring, and where is it kept?

Facing your death is not easy for anyone.  But if you are a parent and or grandparent, and you want to preserve the relationship between your children, considering making these decisions and doing the necessary work.  I have seen two brothers who will never speak to one another again because of a chest of drawers, and another client told me "I have cousins who don't speak because of Hummels".

Take control, say what happens, be specific, and work with an attorney to make it legal in your state. Remember, a blog is not a lawyer or legal advice, and should not be relied upon.  It is educational and designed to spur the thinking process.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Staying Out of Probate in Wisconsin


The Badger State (aka Wisconsin) is known for many things: die hard Packer fans; cheese; cows, just to name a few.  Low taxes are not something Wisconsinites associate with this verdant state in the heart of our country -- especially at the moment when property tax bills arrive in mail boxes.  But in the area of probate, we rank towards the bottom.

Here in Wisconsin the fee (or tax) assessed on a probate is 0.2 percent. That is zero point two!  In other states it is as high as 8 or 10 percent.  The fee is assessed on the total inventory of a probate estate, things outside of probate are not subject to the fee.  Even though it is quite low when compared with other venues, routinely I receive calls on "how to avoid probate".  There are options:

  • Give it away during life.  If you do not own it at death, the tax does not apply.  This can be tricky on several levels.  One, you do not know how long you will live and cannot be certain how much you can afford to give away.  Two, the giftor is responsible for paying the gift tax if the gift exceeds the limit set by the IRS (currently $14,000 per person per year, some exceptions allowed).  And third, if you give it, you cannot control what someone else does with it.  This last one is hard for people to accpet, once it is gone, it is gone;
  • Fill out Direct Transfer forms. If the asset has a label that says "it goes to my daughter upon my death" it goes to her, outside of probate, no matter what a will might say.  The transfer is direct, avoids the probate fee, and is usually faster than probate (which can take up to a year or more to be complete). These labels can be placed on: life insurance, retirement accounts, bank accounts, real estate (via a transfer on death deed); and brokerage accounts.
  • Create a Trust.  The granddaddy of avoiding probate is the living revocable trust.  Essentially a wicker basket designed to hold assets during your life, and then distribute them to beneficiaries sometime after you have died.  This direction avoids the probate process, but requires the creation of a trust, accomplished through writing a trust agreement which addresses who is in charge, what they can do, etc.  And it requires the title to the asset be changed to the name of the trust.  If not, the asset is not in the trust. More clients than not find this process too daunting, and opt for probate and its fee instead.
The creation or update of a will, trust or other end-of-life documents can become complex quickly.  And it is not always a large net worth that creates complexity.  Second marriages, cabins, and family members with special needs create challenges.  A blog post is not intended to be legal advice, and should not be relied upon.  Please use this as educational material, and seek legal advice from a licensed attorney in your state. Thanks for reading!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Control and the Estate Planning Process


Looking for motivation to face the question of your illness and or death?  Look no farther than the word "control".  That is what I tell audiences when I speak on the topic of estate planning.  It's about taking control.  If you do not, you are leaving key decisions to be made by someone other than yourself.  For some, this is what they need to hear to plow forward into writing powers of attorney and a will.  For others, no amount of prep talk will work, giving rise to the yin and yang of estate planning.  For every person resistant to completing papers, there is a loved one urging them on.

No matter how eager a loved one may be for you to complete your estate plan, they cannot force it to be done.  Over the weekend I spoke at our church and referenced the fact that we are assisting my mother with some stressful health issues.  Afterwards another member approached me about being in the "sandwich generation" and wondered what she could do to urge her aging parents to complete an estate plan.  "Not much" was my answer.

The control lies in the client, not the client's loved ones.  Often I field calls from concerned adult children, seeing a train wreck approaching: The confusion, the disagreement, the stress, the loss of time and money -- it is all headed their way.  Just as they cannot hop on a runaway train and become its engineer, they cannot force aging parents to complete useful paperwork.  What they can do is brace for impact.  Think worse case scenario and plan.  Things to consider:

  • what do the laws of the state the parent lives in allow for guardianship?  That is the process we often turn to when powers of attorney have not been done or are out-of-date; 
  • find an attorney you want to work with now, and have his or her number ready if and when needed; and
  • read about working with loved ones on how to make difficult decisions on health, finances and end-of-life issues.
And really, that is about it.  Brace yourself.  The crash may never happen.  There may be documents in place, but you just do not know about them.  But remember, the control in estate planning lies in the client's hands, not the loved ones.  

Thanks for reading, and remember a blog is not legal advice and should not be relied on.  Please consult an attorney in your state (or that of a loved one) for advice specific to your situation.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Seminars on Wills, POAs, Trusts, Probate and more - Dane County, Wisconsin

Lawyers are suppose to give back to their communities, and one of my favorite vehicles for meeting this obligation is to provide free, education seminars on the topics of wills, powers of attorney, trusts, probate and related issues.

My speaking engagements for 2013 have come to an end, but there are already several for 2014 on my calendar.  Most are two hours in length, sponsored by a local nonprofit entity, and are free and open to the public.  Take a look, sign up, and start the new year informed and in control.  Details are posted on the events page of the firm web site.  Click here for a link.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Middle Class Philanthropist and #GivingTuesday

Middle Class Philanthropist

Today marks the 2nd annual #GivingTuesday, an international effort to encourage people to give back during the holiday season.  In celebration of this nonprofit fundraising spirit, I will be holding my first ever book reading of Middle Class Philanthropist: How anyone can leave a legacy.  Join me at 6:30pm, Mystery to Me books on Monroe Street here in Madison.  There will be hot cider, cookies, and charitable inspiration!

If you cannot make it, check the book out on-line by visiting the publishing web site, Goodreads, or various on-line book sellers.  Everyone can make a difference, and it is the size of our hearts that matters, not our wallets.


Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Thanksgiving Conversation, Estate Planning Attorney Style

It is upon us, the week of Thanksgiving.  Hands down this is my favorite holiday.  The change of season is still new (at least here in Madison, Wisconsin).  The verdant colors of summer long gone.  Only a few burst of gold can be seen on a tree here and there.  And a blanket of white snow covers the ground.  Soon we'll gather in kitchens, sit around tables adorned with a feast, and chat by the fire.  Yes, it is my favorite holiday.   And given how I spend my work days, I see it as the perfect time of year to cover some basics in estate planning with the friends and loved ones you'll spend the holiday with.

Okay, so these are not my suggestions for conversations over the actual turkey meal (or tofu if that is your preference), but sometime over the long weekend you might want to:
  1. Tell loved ones that you have completed a will, power of attorney, and or beneficiary forms.  They do not need to know the specifics, but they do need to know where originals are stored;
  2. If copies of powers of attorney are valid in your state, make sure the people you have named are given a copy; and
  3. If your visit is spent with the people you have named to make your medical decisions, keep them up-to-date on your wishes and desires.  Has anything about your health condition changed in the past year?  Should s/he know about the change.
Looking beyond your own documents, assess your older loved ones.  Is there health failing?  Are there signs of dementia?  Are you comfortable asking if they have done documents themselves?  And if so, where they can be found.  Not every relationship can be this open and honest, but ask yourself -- what would happen if you received a call about a loved one who has fallen into a coma.  Will you be expected to act?  Will you know his/her wishes?  Does the person even have documents created?  If not, who in the family and or friend group would step forward.  Know that you cannot make a person do anything in the area of estate planning.  But, I have found that the smallest amount of thought beforehand can save enormous time and energy when "life happens".  So give it some thought, not too much, and then go back to enjoying one another's company and the loveliness that is Thanksgiving!

The hearth at our home, waiting for the fire Thanksgiving Day!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Art Work of Grandma AnnaLee

Grandma AnnaLee is in her late 70s, living in a Midwestern town.  Like many people, over the years she has acquired some art work.  Paintings to be specific.  Some she purchased, others were inherited from an uncle who was an artist.

Unlike many people, Grandma AnnaLee is comfortable with the fact that one day she will be gone, but her art work will remain.  Wanting to take control of the situation now, when she still has a say, she contacted the big art museum in town.  One she enjoys visiting and thought would be a good home for her paintings when her time comes.  To her surprise the museum said "thank you for thinking of us, but do know that if you leave them to us they will essentially be put in storage...in our basement, we have more than we can display." By now you know that Grandma AnnaLee is a savvy woman, and she took this cue from the museum and tried another approach.  After some thought and research she located a smaller, more regional (county run) museum that did have space to display the paintings.  It is here that her art work will move when her earthly days come to an end.  

The wisdom of Grandma AnnaLee translates to all art collectors.  Whether it is paintings, cookie jar collections, or wood carvings -- before you bequeath your collection, ask if it can be accommodated. Thinking outside the box may mean talking to:

  • smaller, more regional art museums;
  • considering historical societies; or
  • locating a nonprofit willing to auction the item(s) as part of a charity fundraiser.
M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2013 -- Space Shuttle on display at Air and Space Museum, Dulles.  Remember -- museums have limited space, will your collection actual make it to the display area?

Thank you for reading, and do note that a blog is not legal advice but rather a forum for discussion and education.  Please do not rely on this post for legal advice, but rather contact an attorney in your state for advice specific to your situation.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Gift Taxes: Annual Exclusion versus Lifetime Exclusion

Reviewing headlines posted in an email summary of important news in the world of estate planning, one caught my eye.  Gift tax limits to increase in 2014 per an IRS announcement.

What -- I thought the amount was going to remain the same in 2014, what's going on?  This is what immediately popped into my mind.

As I dug into the article clarity hit.

Oh, the lifetime gift tax exemption is increasing in 2014, not the annual gift tax exemption.  Got it! And then I realized, this is the type of news that makes sense to me, but not many of Americas middle class. Annual exclusion, lifetime exclusion, what....?  I have given enough seminars to know this is the type of distinction that makes people roll their eyes and throw their hands up on frustration.

Here is my breakdown:

  • The annual gift exemption is the amount any one person can give another person in one calendar year and not worry about telling the IRS.  In 2013 that amount is $14,000, and it will remain the same in 2014;


  • The lifetime gift tax exemption is the amount any one person can leave over a lifetime of gifting and avoid a tax if the credit allotted by the IRS is used.  In 2014 it will increase to $5.34 million, and the amount in excess would be taxed at  rate of 40%;


  • A gift occurs when one person gives another property and receives little or nothing in return.  See the IRS web site for more detail on what is a gift.  All too often I hear the comment, we sold the cabin for $1.  I immediately this, oh the IRS is not going to agree that it was a sale, it was a gift!
Keep in mind there are always exceptions, this is the tax code we are talking about.  Married couples, gifts paid directly to colleges or medical facilities, and of course donations to charity all offer avenues to pass more assets than the limit.  

The vast majority of my clients do not need to focus on the lifetime exclusion as they will not have millions to pass on. However, those annual limits pop up more often than they would guess.  Adding an adult child to your bank account so that he or she can write checks if you are ill -- the IRS may view that as a gift.  Including your child's name on the deed to vacation property?  Another chance for the IRS to call it a gift -- meaning a tax was owed if the annual exclusion was triggered.

Remember - a blog is not legal advice, but rather a forum to prompt thought and discussion.  Please see a lawyer in your state for advice specific to your situation.  Thanks for reading!




Monday, October 28, 2013

Want to Scare an Attorney? Mention Legal Malpractice

M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2012 -- Author's son in 2012 Halloween Costume

Lawyers go to school for a long time, and once they become an attorney they are usually required to continue attending legal education classes every year.  Here in Wisconsin attorneys are required to attend 30 hours of continuing legal education, three of which must be ethics credits, every two years.  As my reporting year draws to a close I have been attending quite a few seminars this fall.  And the topic that uniformly makes the hairs stand up on the arms of an attorney is legal malpractice.

Just like medical doctors, attorneys can be sued if they fail to provide a client with competent representation. Have you ever found yourself at a social event talking with someone who is an attorney, and your mind jumps to a legal issue from your life?  Chances are you said "hey, your a lawyer!  What should I do about x, y, or z?"  If the attorney was wise, he or she would have said one of two things:

  • "Excellent question, but this is not the proper place to talk.  Why don't you call me Monday to set up an appointment", or
  • "Interesting situation, but it is outside my area of practice.  Why don't you contact my friend who works in that area, or, try the State Bar referral service."
A response of this type should not offend you because the lawyer is following proper guidelines.  It is true that quality legal analysis and advice cannot be given at a neighborhood picnic.  And just because someone attended law school does not mean he or she is equipped to advise you on the ins an outs of estate planning. I often joke -- would you want your allergist to perform your c-section?  Money does not need to be exchanged for a lawyer to trigger a relationship in which he or she can be sued for malpractice.  Here in Wisconsin all it takes is the client relying on the advice.  

Thanks for reading, and enjoy this week of tricks and treats.  And remember, a blog is meant for educational purposes.  It is not legal advice and should not be relied upon -- please consult an attorney in your state for advice specific to your situation.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Book Release -- Middle Class Philanthropist: How anyone can leave a legacy

It is with great joy that I announce the pending release of my first book publication, Middle Class Philanthropist: How anyone can leave a legacy. It will be available for purchase November 1, 2013.

Predating democracy, capitalism, organized religion, and as old as humanity itself, philanthropy exists because things often go wrong, and things can always be better in our world.  Nothing about philanthropy requires a person to have excessive amounts of money to make a difference.  In Middle Class Philanthropist: How anyone can leave a legacy, Melinda Gustafson Gervasi redefines the conventional view of philanthropy, providing simple and practical tools by which anyone can leave a legacy.


Purchases can be made by clicking on this image of the book cover.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Identity Theft of the Deceased

M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2013

Not even death can protect someone from having his or her identity stolen.  In fact, death may just make it easier.  Last week I attended an interesting seminar on identity theft, which generates over$20 billion in lost dollars a year.  Florida tops the list for offenders and my home state of Wisconsin ranks 31st, but not matter the state of residence it is an issue for surviving loved ones to consider.

According to the presenter, a representative from Wisconsin's Office of Privacy Protection, there are various types of identity theft.  There is the obvious, financial, where someone runs off with your funds or makes purchases under your name.  But there is also theft of a child's identity, often not uncovered until the child reaches age 18 and sets off into the world to discover someone has been using his or her SSN for years. There is medical identity theft, where a thief uses your medical insurance  And in the case of the deceased, a thief picks up where you left off.

For those tending to a deceased loved ones estate, the speaker offered the following tips:

  • file a final income tax form as soon as possible to prevent a thief from redirecting a refund to his or her address;
  • turn in a drivers license to the DMV;
  • property dispose of other ID cards and the SSN card;
  • contact all credit cards and other lending organizations and shut off the account
Please note, a blog post is not legal advice and should not be relied upon. Rather, it is a vehicle for education and discussion. You should contact a lawyer in your state for advice specific to your situation.  Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

October 21st Begins National Estate Planning Awareness Week!

Earlier this week I teased my associate on what was her last day in the office before taking time off for her wedding and honeymoon -- oh, you'll be relaxing in Costa Rica next week and miss National Estate Planning Awareness Week!"  We both gave a soft laugh, and then returned our focus to the ever important work we perform assisting clients with the creation, update and execution of estate planning documents. Looking ahead to next week I wonder how many people will recognize that this is an issue for every American?

No matter your net worth, every one of us will face illness, death and taxes.  All to commonly I hear people quip "I don't have much, so I don't need an estate plan!"  If only they knew what I knew, their answer may be quite different.  Estate planning is not solely an issue for those wishing to preserve a family fortune, it is for anyone who desires to take control of what happens when he or she falls ill and/or dies.  Consider the following:

  • A single women in her 20s dies from a prescription complication-- where will her wrongful death settlement go?
  • An elderly man who never married suffers a stroke, leaving him unable to return to his condo and five year old cat -- where will the cat go?
  • A women in her 40s who is partnered but not married, succumbs to the breast cancer she has fought for a decade -- who will become the guardian of her two young children?
  • A man who was widowed at 55, remarried at 60, and then dies at 72 leaves behind a home and a lifetime of investments -- where will they go, the children from his first marriage or his current wife?
None of these hypothetical situations are a stretch of the imagination -- all are real life examples from my practice.  Life happens, including sad and tragic events.  By updating or creating an estate plan you are taking control of very delicate matters.  And if you do not, you leave the answers up to the courts and other powers that be.  

As always, a blog is intended to stimulate conversation and raise important issues.  It is not legal advice and should not be relied upon.  Please seek counsel from a licensed attorney in your state.  And thanks for reading!

Friday, October 11, 2013

Looking Ahead to 2014 - Gift and Federal Estate Tax Limits

Image by M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2013

Fall colors may be at peak brilliance as I type, but our friends at the Internal Revenue Service have already thought ahead to calendar year 2014.  When January 1st arrives Americans should keep two things in mind.

First, the federal estate tax exemption will increase to $5,340,000, up from $5,250,000 in 2013.  What this means is any one person who dies in 2014 with an estate worth less than $5,340,000 does not need to worry about an estate tax.  Those who have a net worth in excess may face a federal estate tax being applied to any amount in excess.  Note, exceptions are married for married couples as well as those naming nonprofits in their estate plan.

Second, the world of the gift tax will not change.  Unlike the federal exemption, the amount will not increase in the new year and will remain at $14,000.  An important number to keep in mind when gifting assets.  If the amount you gift to any one person in that calendar year is less than $14,000, no tax is owed by the gift maker.  Gifts that exceed the amount are likely subject to the tax, barring special circumstances.

As always, a blog is not legal advice and should not be relied on given the ever changing legal word.  It is meant to spark discussion and promote education.  Please consult with an attorney prior to taking any action.
Thank you for reading, and have a great weekend.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Importance of Paper in a Digital World

Image by M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2013

Paper -- it is becoming a relic in many parts of modern society.  Thanks to the digital world, fewer and fewer people receive and/or keep hard copies of important papers.  However, in the world of estate planning, I think that is a huge mistake. 

For example, take the case of beneficiary forms associated with either life insurance policies or retirement accounts.  Routinely I advise clients to keep a hard copy of each form with their estate plan for three reasons:
  1. Printing it out and reviewing the form confirms that the form says what you think it does.  If not, and someone is named that you no longer wished named, you have a chance to make updates. Remember, what is on the form controls no matter what a will says;
  2. The form is proof that at one time you did indeed have a beneficiary listed, directing the asset to an heir outside of the probate process.  Organizations can and do loose beneficiary forms.  Do not count on them to keep good records; and
  3. The forms create a paper trail for loved ones about the various locations at which you held assets.  Along with the digital age as come job and career jumping.  It is not uncommon for a person to die with five or more different retirement accounts, all at different institutions.  Those forms clearly show your loved ones where to go when needed.
Please remember a blog post does not constitute legal advice an attorney client relationship.  A post is designed to spur thought and discussion, but cannot be relied on given the ever changing nature of our legal world.  Thank you for reading, and please consult an attorney for guidance on your specific situation.

Monday, September 9, 2013

What Happens to Frequent Flier Miles and Other Rewards? It Depends!

Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C. 2013 -- M. Gustafson Gervasi

Lawyers are known for giving the dreaded answer of "it depends" when asked a question.  But it is true, unsatisfying, but true.  Case in point -- the a ability to leave frequent flier miles and other loyalty perks to family and friends upon your death depends on the service agreement you have with the company.  Sure, your will may say "I leave my Delta Frequent Flier miles to my spouse", but the will does not control distribution.  It's the service agreement with the company, and according to recent news, Delta is one of 5 major airlines that prohibits passing frequent flier miles at death.  Other airlines, as well as companies with loyalty perks, may allow limited transfers to a spouse or domestic partner.  In the end, it really depends on the agreement with the company.

In the end, read your agreement.  If you do not like the terms, seek out another company.  But watch for updates and changes to the service agreement terms.  In a tight economy companies are seeking out savings in every nook and cranny of the business operation.  And those points you've earned may vanish upon your passing.

Thanks for reading, and remember -- a blog is not a lawyer nor should it be taken as legal advice.  Please seek counsel from an attorney licensed in your state for advice specific to your situation.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Power of Attorney for Finance -- Who Do You Trust With Your Checkbook?


Earlier this week I took a call from a financial planner I know.  She was calling for advice to give an elderly client.  In her eighties, the client's health was beginning to decline and the question came up, who would be right to take over the finances when the time comes?  The planner wondered what general advice I might have.  The women had no family nearby.  From my vantage point as an estate planning and probate attorney, I offered the following thoughts:

  • Trust and competency are more important than proximity.  Go with someone who does not have his or her own financial problems, lessen the chance they will either steal or simply drop the ball and create a mess.
  • Finances can be managed from a distance thanks to fax machines, the internet, and smart phones.
  • A remote power of attorney can hire a local daily money manager if local or on-site financial duties are required.
  • Consider skipping over family and friends and naming a professional, such as your CPA.  
People may feel that they are without options, and thus not take control of the situation.  If you hit a roadblock reach out and ask others.  There may be a solution you had never thought of.

Thanks for reading, and remember -- a blog is not legal advice.  Please seek counsel from an attorney licensed in your state.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

I.R.S. Rules on Same-Sex Married Couples Status



As fall settles over the country and children return to the classroom, we have a clear understanding how one federal agency will treat same-sex couples in a post-DOMA world.  Last week, within an hour or two of dropping my Summer/Fall newsletter off at the printers, I received an alert from my associate back in the office.  The IRS released a statement clarifying its position on how it will treat married same-sex couples for estate and income tax purposes.  The newsletter had indicated that each agency would make a decision, and up until then, the IRS treatment depended on a couple's state of residence.  And then it changed.  My plans to start the Labor Day weekend were delayed, a few sentences were re-written, and back to the printers it went.

According to the Internal Revenue Service, same-sex married couples will receive:

  • all federal tax benefits no matter where they live.  This is significant for same-sex couples in my home state of Wisconsin, where same-sex marriages are not currently allowed.  If a couple were legally married in Iowa, but reside here, under this IRS ruling, they will be allowed the same tax breaks as any other married couple for both estate and incomes taxes. 
  • Also, the IRS is allowing amended returns going back to 2010.  Something that will likely cause the phones of CPAs across the country to ring!
As noted in earlier posts, each federal agency is making its own decision on how to function in a post-DOMA world.  Watch for more updates on this evolving issue.  And remember, a blog is not legal advice.  Please consult a licensed attorney in your state.





Friday, August 23, 2013

The Word "Issue" In a Will

Lawyers perform many tasks throughout the course of a workday, and the role of translator happens quite often.  By translator I mean taking legalese and converting it into plain English.  Of the legal terms I translate on a weekly basis is the word "issue".

Within the context of estate planning and probate (wills, powers of attorney, trusts) the word issue means a person's children and or offspring.  Here's an example:  Mary Lou is 92 and has a daughter, Sharon who is 70.  Sharon has a daughter Melinda age 40.  Finally, Melinda has a daughter Maeve, who is 3.  Mary Lou's issue are: Sharon, Melinda and Maeve.  Note, issue is not just children, but all offspring by birth or adoption, step-relations are not included.

Recently I explained this term to a client as we reviewed the couple's estate plan.  It was a blended family; he had children from a previous marriage, she had no children.  Wondering why his will referred to "issue" I explained the concept.  Issue referred to his children and any future grandchildren.  To which she laughed and said "well, I may have issues, but I don't have issue!"  I laughed too, and knew she had mastered the concept.

The author, Melinda, along with Mary Lou, Sharon, and Maeve.  Taken in 2011, it's four generations of women from the Lamb Family

Thanks for reading, and note that a blog post is not a substitute for an attorney nor should it be taken for legal advice.


Friday, August 9, 2013

How to Hire an Attorney When It's Time for a Will

Image by M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2013

Creating an estate plan does not require working with a professional who wears a pin striped suit and sits behind a mahogany desk with an expensive view of the city skyscape. Yes, a visit to a lawyers office may be needed, or maybe not, but keep in mind there are attorneys who shun the suits and fancy trappings as much as you do. My tips for finding a quality yet down-to-earth attorney include:
  • Ask friends and family if they had an attorneys help with a will or powers of attorney. If so, they either love them or hate them, and will gladly tell you about the experience.
  • Get a referral from your CPA, financial planner, insurance agent or banker. If you like that person's style, they may know of an attorney who operates the same way.
  • Interview three to four attorneys. Yes, interview them. They will be working for you, so take the time to get to know them first. If they are unwilling to talk briefly or are not forthcoming, move on. Keep in mind that to get gold-star legal advice you must be willing to disclose information related to family structure and finances. You have to open up to this person, so make sure your personalities align. In the course of my practice I have had clients share very private aspects of their life, including giving up children for adoption in high school. Planning can be emotional. Make sure you are comfortable enough to trust this person with information about your finances, family structure, and legacy aspirations. If not you cannot share the intimate details of your life with your attorney, the legal advice will be limited at best.
  • Find an attorney who focuses on estate planning and probate. Sure your cousin may have a bankruptcy practice and be willing to give you a family discount. But first ask yourself, would you have your allergist perform your c-section? Most likely not. Focus areas mean the attorney should have precise and in-depth knowledge of wills, powers of attorneys, and probate. Generalists run the risk of spreading their knowledge too thin.
  • Opt for a flat-fee attorney instead of one with an hourly rate. This means you will be less likely to keep looking at your watch, wondering how much will this cost, allowing you to thoroughly interact with your attorney.
  • Check out the attorney with the regulatory agency. This will be state specific. Some regulatory or professional associations merely collect dues and require attorneys to sit through continuing legal education. You want to check out the attorney with the licensing entity to find out if other clients have filed complaints. Sadly, it is not unheard of for attorneys to steal from client funds or show up drunk to court. Investigate if you can.
  • Get it in writing. Request that the attorney put the terms of service in writing – how to they charge (flat-fee, hourly, etc.), what do they charge, what services are offered, what services are not offered (I, for example do not complete tax returns for clients because I am not a CPA). Some states may require this information, called an engagement letter or legal services agreement, and others may not. Either way, getteing the terms on paper is smart before hiring an attorney.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Pets in the Estate Planing Process


At 5 years old, Kiki the Cat was loving life.  The focus of her human companion's attention, they shared a lovely condo in downtown Madison.  Filled with sun, toys, and napping baskets, life was good.  And then life happened.  Suddenly her human companion was sick, really sick.  So sick that long-term care was needed, life in the condo became something of the past.  Kiki needed a new home, and a new family.

Not unlike countless other animals, her path may have led to a shelter.  Instead, the promise of a family friend to that human companion secured Kiki a new home.  And that home is mine.  She is now one of three cats in a home, has 5 and 3 year old humans scampering about, and a bay window overlooking a lush green yard...filled with birds.  Kiki's story turned out well.  If you are a pet owner, what would happen if you suddenly fell ill and could not provide care, or if you passed?  Unpleasant question -- sure, but an essential one.

When counseling clients in my legal practice, I routinely offer the following suggestions:
  1. Program the ICE in your Smart Phone (it's the In Case of Emergency key) to have a Pet Contact. Most phones have room for two or three contacts. Should you be in a car accident or other situation where you are fall ill away from home, make sure emergency personnel know about animals in your home that may need care within the next 12 hours. It is common practice for authorities to use Smart Phones to locate loved ones, and it can alert them to special circumstances in your home.
  2. Post a Care Contact Document on your fridge. Parents of young children often have a magnet on the fridge with the phone number for the pediatrician, etc. Those with animals in the home should create a similar document and list: name and phone number of veterinarian; list of prescription food or medicines for each animal, if any; contact information for a short-term pet sitter; and the name and number of one or two people who are willing and able to offer a new permanent home to an animal.
  3. Create powers of attorney for finance, which allow others to manage your financial affairs if you are alive, but too sick to act. This should include services related to animal health and care.
  4. If medical or other care costs will be a financial burden on future caretakers, consider creating a pet trust in a will or living revocable trust. These instruments can be simple (usually four paragraphs long), and allow you to transfer animals and money to a trust managed by someone you appoint, cared for my a person of your choosing, and direct where any remaining monies should upon the death of the animal.
Thanks for reading, and remember -- a blog post is not legal advice.  It is a venue to stir thoughts and questions.  Please consult an attorney in your area for advice specific to your situation.


Friday, July 26, 2013

Estate Planning - Planning for the Worst, Being Prepared!

Image by M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2013

Earlier this week, while meeting with some long standing clients, the conversation turned to my children's forthcoming venture into "the school years".  Saying good-bye to a nanny, and hello to backpacks and lunch boxes.  And in my mind it also means embracing the fact that they will get sick.  And sick days will present a new challenge -- who stays home?  The clients, who raised four lovely children offered "don't plan for the worst, plan for the best".  To which I chuckled and said "remember, I spend my days planning for people's deaths....planning for the worst is in my blood!"

Sick days are in our future, putting both mom and dad on to plan B for the day. Sure, it hasn't happened yet, but it will, and I'm planning for it.  And I do the same with my clients.   That is what estate planning is, at least to me.  It is not something reserved for the upper crust of society. One does not need a second home to require an estate plan.  One only need to be age 18 or older.  Why? Estate planning is planning for illness, death and taxes.  Things none of us will escape.  And without the proper papers in place courts will make decisions, and those may not mirror ones you would have made.  Without a plan, what will happen? Something will, but will that something be ideal, optimal, just?  Take control and put your wishes on paper, that's an estate plan.

And it means facing the worst.  Sure you want everything to go to your spouse or partner.  But what if they don't survive you.  Car accidents can claim more than one life.  Then on to your children, but what if they were in the car?  We are getting into the land of statistically improbable, but these can and do happen. Planning for the worst.....it's not fun, but at least you are prepared.

I'll leave you with a few action steps to get the process started:

  1. Determine what if any estate planning paperwork you might have in place:
    • beneficiary forms on life insurance or retirement
    • PODs or TODs on banking and or brokerage accounts
    • will
    • multiple names on deeds to real estate
  2. Create forms that you are missing
  3. Review the papers and see if they reflect your current wishes -- remember, what is listed on a beneficiary form controls.  If an ex is listed, guess who will receive the funds?  Yes, most likely the ex!
  4. Make change as needed -- look at names, has someone died or been born and it is not reflected?
  5. Create a 3-ring binder with subject dividers to organize things.  This will help you in years ahead when you need to make updates, or the papers are put to use.

Friday, July 5, 2013

James Gandolfini's Will -- Lessons Learned

My phone chimed, indicating either a text or a New York Times news bulletin.  It was the later, and to my shock, announced the all too soon death of James Gandolfini.  At 51, the star of the superb show The Sopranos was gone.  In the days that have followed the news has covered his career, his funeral, and now his will.

My admiration for the actor continues to increase.  Not only did he die with a will, he died with an up-to-date will.  News reports say Gandolfini left upwards of $70 million, including provisions for his 13 year old son from a prior marriage, his current wife, and his infant daughter.  The only detail that struck me as odd was that his sons trust ends at age 21, a relatively young age in my opinion.  Working with clients I often toss out the ages of 25 or 28, and then add the comment that in my will a trust would not end until my youngest is 30.

While I may question a relatively young age for termination of a trust, I commend Mr. Gandolfini for facing the fact so many ignore....one day we will die.  Every one of us.  When, where and how remain a mystery, but the end is certain.  We cannot prevent it, but we can prepare.

Vibrant, talented, young, a future ahead of him, and now he is gone.  But he was prepared.  His affairs were in order.  And most likely it reduced his family's stress during an intense period of grief.  Could your loved ones say the same?


Friday, June 28, 2013

Team for the AHA Heart Walk

Once again I will be participating in the annual American Heart Walk.  This year the event for Southwestern Wisconsin will be held the morning of October 5th at the lovely Warner Park.  My hope is not to walk alone, but with a team formed through my law office.  Those interested in walking with us, or making a donation, can visit our team page on the AHA.

Why walk?  Heart disease is the number one killer of women in the United States.  It nearly claimed the life of my mother in 1991, when she was 47 years old.  Thanks to medications, treatments, and a pacemaker her two decade struggle continues.  And every year it seems someone else in my circle of family and friends falls victim to heart disease and or stroke, with this past year bringing my father-in-law near the brink with congestive heart failure.  He is still here, stronger than ever, thanks to outstanding cardiac care.

So for my family, friends, clients, and myself.....I pledge to walk and fundraise once again.

Have a lovely weekend!

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Settlement Proposed - Wisconsin Funeral Trust

News broke last fall that Wisconsin's Funeral Trust was broke.  Risky investments brought the fund down, way down, down past the point to ensure 100% payment on monies deposited by consumers.  In raw numbers, it had $48 million, but $70.7 million in obligations.

Since an investigation has commenced as well as a court appointed receiver.  News this week indicates that in a proposed settlement in the funeral trust, consumers will receive the full services they paid for.  Funeral homes are not required to sign on to the agreement, and have until September 30, 2013 to do so.

While all of this sounds favorable, one glaring question rings in my ears -- what options are there for those who had not yet created a funeral trust, but want or need one?  Answer is unknown to me, so I'll email John Wirth, the attorney appointed by the court to be the receiver.  Check back for an update!

Author's note: my posts here have been sporadic because I have been devoting substantial writing time to a book that will be released Fall 2013.  Watch for details on my first publication, Middle Class Philanthropist: How Anyone Can Leave a Legacy.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Observing Memorial Day 2013

Image by M. Gustafson Gervasi, Poppies, 2013

Poppies -- the flower associated with Memorial Day because of its connection with the poem In Flanders Field, which honors those killed in war.  Memorial Day, a day to pause and remember, and day to celebrate freedom, day off from work.  Over the long weekend I will be spending time with family and friends, visiting the Veteran's Museum in downtown Madison, and calling my Grandfather to say hello and thank you for his service in WWII (winning a Purple Heart for a battle on Iwo Jima).  May you have a lovely Memorial Day weekend, and I'll be May 28th with more thoughts on illness, death and taxes for the middle class.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Lessons From a WWII Veteran -- Use Caution When Selecting a Power of Attorney

Image by M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2013

Recent news stories out of Ohio underscore the importance of selecting a power of attorney for finance.  In the story a WWII veteran transferred power of attorney for finances to his daughter, and then the daughter transferred his house to her and her husband's names.  A few years later a family rift developed, and the daughter sought to evict the father from his home.  Thanks to his granddaughter and an on-line fundraising campaign, he was able to buy back the home he'd lived in for over 50 years.  It is hard to believe that members of the Greatest Generation could be treated in such a manner, but the reality of life can often be harsh.

From my vantage point behind a lawyer's desk, I would keep the following in mind when it comes to nominating someone to act as your power of attorney for finance:

  • use a form that says the power is transferred upon your incapacity (legal standards will vary from state to state) as opposed to transferring that power immediately.  Sometimes this is not the ideal situation for an elderly person who is slowly declining and wants to off load some of the more mundane tasks in life;
  • recognize that the people you are considering may have financial pressures you are unaware of -- gambling debt, job loss, maxed out credit cards, a spendthrift spouse all tend to be things folks keep quite and do not share.  Really think about who it is you are appointing;
  • include a back-up in case your first choice is unable or unwilling to act; 
  • consider friends or professionals (a CPA for example) in your life, a power of attorney need not be your blood relative;
  • select someone who enjoys tasks related to balancing the checkbook, paying the taxes, etc; and
  • look for a person who is diplomatic -- someone who will not set of a fire storm of emotion during an already emotional time.
This is not a complete list, but some of the important concepts that are at the front of my mind today.  Remember, a blog post is not legal advice.  Please consult a lawyer in your state for advice specific to your situation. Visiting an attorney is not fun, but putting these thoughts on paper is taking control of the situation.  And who better to do that than yourself.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Another Capital City 5K!

Okay, so it is not quite Memorial Day, but this Type A attorney is busy putting healthy and inspiring events on the family calendar.  When you spend your working hours counseling clients on the ins and outs of illness, death and taxes, you need some uplifting things to look forward to.  And the Capital City 5K is fast becoming an annual favorite of mine.

Held on a Saturday evening, the event raises funds as well as awareness for those with chronic kidney disease or people requiring a transplant.  Unlike the testimonials on the events web site and blog, I have no personal connection to kidney disease; it is heart disease that spreads like wild wife in my family tree.  So why this event?

First, it is a 5k.  A doable run.  I'm an attorney, so I sit, a lot, too much.  I'm the mother of two little kids, so sleep is not plentiful.  While I admire those running a 10k, a half-marathon, triathlons, etc., I am realistic.  Training for a 5k is realistic, it is doable, it is not a burden.  And so it is my event of choice.

Second, it is a great Saturday night "date" night with my husband, who shares my enjoyment in running.  We are not the poster couple for Runners World, but we enjoy being outside and the runners high a 5k provides.

Third, this event is unlike most other 5ks, it ends with a pool party!  Here is how it works: you meet at the Goodman Pool in Madison, the event buses you to the Capital Square, you run (most of the time along the lake) back to the pool.  And once you are done, it is pool time.  Admission is included in the $35 registration fee.

Fourth, I serve many clients who either suffer from chronic kidney conditions, have received a transplant, or know someone who needs one.  Legal papers can only address certain issues, helping to raise awareness is just one more little thing I can do to support the people who trust me to be Type A and make sure "their papers" are in order.

And so there you have it, my reasons for signing myself and my husband up for the Capital City 5k.  Here is a link if you are interested in learning more or singing up!

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Dalai Lama Comes to Town: Madison, Mental Health and the Month of May

Image by M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2013

May started out for me be attending an event at the local courthouse.  May 1st marked Law Day, celebrating the legal profession, offered free continuing legal education for attorneys, and of course there was cake.  Inspired after listening to a session entitled Lincoln - A Lawyer for the Ages, I returned to my office.  There I found the monthly newsletter from the Dane County Bar Association.  Included was a piece about May being National Mental Health Month, and the fact that members of the legal profession suffer from depression, stress, anxiety, and suicide at levels higher than the average population.  This was a fact I knew. What struck me was mention that both President Lincoln as well as Fighting Bob LaFollette, both members of the profession, suffered from bouts of depression over the course of their lives and careers.  In the week that followed headlines broke stating that the suicide rate among middle aged Americans jumped 40 percent from 1999 to 2010.  A shocking increase.

As I write today, the Dalai Lama is in Madison.  His fourth trip to our gem of a city.  A close relationship with Dr. Richard Davidson (Center for Investigating Healthy Minds).  The morning paper reported his call for improved mental health as a way to cure the world's troubles.  Where to start?  The options are plentiful, but I'll leave you here today with a few signs of depression.  Recognizing a problem is the first step to fixing it -- whether it is yours or another persons:

  • Fatigue;
  • Insomnia or excessive sleeping;
  • Inability to focus;
  • Unexplained physical pains;
  • Inability to make a decision;
  • Crying for no apparent reason; and
  • Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed.
For a complete list of signs of depression, visit the Mayo Clinics web site.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Fall 2013: Seminars on Wills, Powers of Attorney, Trusts, etc.

Image by M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2013

The snow has hardly retreated here in Wisconsin, but my fall calendar for seminars has filled up nicely.  Starting in August and going into November you will find a variety of seminars on the ins and outs of wills, trusts, probate and other mattes associated with illness, death and taxes!  Most are free and open to the public, some are shorter appearances as part of a retirement planning workshop.

If you belong to a group or organization that would like to hold a seminar for its members, please contact Attorney Melinda Gustafson Gervasi to coordinate.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Which Is Better? Wills vs. Trusts

Image by M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2013 -- Milwaukee, Wis.

Commonly I am asked, which is better, a will or a trust.  My answer usually surprises people.  "The type of documents matters far less, what matters is how organized are your papers."  Probate, a simple word yet one that pushes people to take steps to avoid loved ones have to slog through the process.  Wills do not avoid probate, rather they facilitate probate.  Trusts on the other hand avoid probate (when created and funded properly) because they are a vessel to hold property outside of probate.  At this point most people's eyes will glaze over: probate, non-probate, funding a trust....it's too much.

From my vantage point as an attorney, the choice between a will and probate is not key.  Both have pluses and minuses, and you should evaluate those with an attorney licensed in your state.  But what really gives loved ones a headache after you die tends to be things like:

  • knowing a will or trusts exists, but having no idea where it is located;
  • the emergency of finding a new care taker for your pets, especially dogs or other critters that cannot be left alone for more than 6 to 10 hours;
  • figuring out who you owed money to -- we live in the digital age and many bills are on auto debit, which can be near impossible to track;
  • the name of your accountant and or financial planner;
  • contacting all the friends and loved ones that are listed in your email and or phone....both are likely not accessible if you are gone;
  • tracking any digital assets (domain names, etc.); and
  • finding addresses for the people who should know you have passed (i.e. high school friends, college roommates, co-workers, etc.).
Remember this, it's the little things that take up time and energy.  So be cautious about how much you debate a will versus a trust, and instead put your efforts into being as Type A as possible in this one area of your life.  If you do, it will be a loving last gift to your loved ones.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Charitable Giving -- The Numbers and Budget Changes

Image by M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2013

According to this report, Americans gave more to non-profits in 2011 than the prior year:

  • the amount of claimed deductions rose from $3.1 billion to $4.4 billion; and
  • total gifts given increased from $37.9 billion to $51 billion in 2011.
Reading this one cannot help but wonder if the President's budget proposal to cap the amount of the charitable deduction, allowing only 28 cents on the dollar.  Keep in mind that only tax payers who exceed the standard deduction can actually take the deduction.  It will be interesting to monitor the numbers in the years ahead should the budget proposal be adopted.  Stay tuned.


Wednesday, May 8, 2013

It's May: Skin Cancer Awareness Month

Image by M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2013 -- Keeping Cool in the summer sun

May 8th -- just a typical day for most people, but in my family we celebrate my husband's birth.  So, of course my post today plays off of his years growing up in the Sunshine State -- where "everyone has a dermatologists".

May, the month of my husband's birth is also National Skin Cancer Awareness Month, a fact that came to my attention when reading a newsletter from our local hospital.  It offers 9 steps to reduce exposure.  For example, avoid being in the sun during peak hours, 10am - 4pm.  Where clothing that covers your skin, including a hat.  Click here for the complete list of ways to reduce the risk of skin cancer.

Avoiding the sun from 10-4 makes sense, but how practical is it?  I cannot help but remember my summers growing up in Madison, and all of the t-ball practices and games I had smack dab in the middle of the afternoon!

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

And now -- Google Heirs

Image by M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2013 -- Mount Vernon

Yes, there is Google+, Gmail, Google Docs, and now the trailblazing company has introduced Google Heirs.  Users now have an account setting that allows users to direct where data should go when the account has been inactive for a set period of time.  What I find shocking is that the article describes this as novel.  No, the idea of directing an asset upon your death is not novel, it is called estate planning and has been around centuries.  It is only novel in the world of tech companies.

Beyond Google, companies like Facebook do not allow users to direct a person to be in charge of an account beyond death.  It simply isn't an option.  A will does not give one the authority to turn off an account for example.

Internet companies, so often on the cutting edge, appear to be behind the times in my book.  Creating a simple label on data that says what happens when you die is not new.  However, to the techie world I will acknowledge this, users are not necessarily owners.  Itunes for example is a licensing agreement.  A license is not ownership, but a right to use during life, and that right dies with you.  Most people do not realize that an actual CD with music in your own is property, a song you access on Itunes is not your property. So why should you be able to leave it upon death.

Thanks for reading, and remember a blog is not a lawyer -- please consult an attorney in your area for advice specific to your situation.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Furlough at the IRS in 2013

Due to the budget compromises in the American Tax Payer Relief Act of 202, cuts are being made at the IRS. And those cuts mean shutting the agency down for several days in 2013, with the possibility of an additional days being added.  This means employees will go without pay, and citizens will go without Taxpayer hotlines, and all other IRS services.  For my office, it means we would not be able to file for EINs in probates or trust cases.  Here are the dates, plan accordingly:

  • May 24th
  • June 14th
  • July 5th
  • July 22nd
  • August 30th
Image by M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2013 -- IRS Building in DC.


Sunday, April 28, 2013

A Very Grateful Attorney

Today, April 28th, marks the anniversary of the day I left the world of employment to focus exclusively on building my own legal practice.  Seven years ago today I broke free and found a career that I adore.  Constantly learning through research, writing documents for hours at a time, providing educational seminars that feed my need to teach, and meeting amazing and wonderful people -- that is my life now when I am "at the office".

Not once I have a I dreaded going to work since embarking on this journey.  And I know that if it were not for the constant stream of clients and seminar attendees, I would simply be talking to myself.  This career path requires relationships.  So today I want to say thank you to all of those who have secured my legal services, sat through a seminar on the first warm sunny evening of Spring, or read my writing.  I look forward to many more years of legal service!  Grateful, that sums up my feelings today.

Image by M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2013 -- Door County, Wis.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Stagnation -- What Stands Between You and a Completed Estate Plan

Stagnation -- a word used to define a process that has slowed or stopped.  Often associated with economic analysis, it can be applied to describe the process of too many people's efforts to create an estate plan.  In fact, a former client used it today when calling to schedule an appoint for a parent who is ailing. The will is from 1965 and nominates a bank as personal representative. The bank is defunct and the back-ups, sisters of testator, long dead.  It is obvious to all involved that a real mess is brewing, but yet no action is taken.  Why?  

Information overload can be blamed.  We live in the information age, and information is great.  But it can also be vast and endless.  Attempting to inform oneself before going to see an attorney for that first meeting puts you at risk of never going.  There is always one more book to read, article to underline, or video to watch.

Too many options are dizzying. Should I go with a trust?  What about a basic will?  Or a will with a trust?  Oh, what's this a transfer on death deed - might that be better?  Options are wonderful, and we are fortunate to have some many selections to choose from.  But how many of us sometimes need to waiter to force us to make a decision when at a restaurant.  If you are decisive, great!  If not, you risk analysis paralysis and will never have a plan completed.

What is the solution?  My recommendation is to focus on one word, control.  When creating or updating an estate plan you are taking control of the situation.  If you do not act, then courts and others will make decisions, because death is something that will eventually knock on everyone's door.  We do not know when, or how, but we know it will one day arrive.  They only thing you can do is take control, put those wishes on paper, and remember you can do pretty much whatever you desire as long as it does not violate public policy (i.e. I leave my estate to my son, but only if he divorces his wife).


Image by M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2013 -- waves crashing on beach in Bayfield, Wis., - Lake Superior.

Thanks for reading, and remember a blog is not legal advice.  Please consult with an attorney licensed in your state for advice specific to your situation.


Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Madison Waldorf School Fundraiser


It's official, I am now a parent with children who raise funds for causes.  And the first is their non-profit school, Madison Waldorf.  Currently in the sprint towards the finish of it's Spring on-line auction, one can bid on a variety of items and services: yoga, Beerfest, baseball tickets, drawing lessons, and thanks to me a free will and powers of attorney.  Valued at $350, it can be had for less based on this morning's winning bid.  Save some money on necessary papers, and help a non-profit school at the same time.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Family Meeting?

Last week I read a commentary by a fellow estate planning attorney, and I shook my head in disagreement.  His position is that upon creating an estate plan, the client should hold a family meeting.  Ideally the lawyer and financial planner would be present as well, and the gathering would allow for those nominated in the plan to receive a tutorial on "what happens when illness or death strikes".  Of course, said attorney facilitates such meetings, most likely at his billable rate.

Why was a shaking my head?  This blanket approach will not work with all families.  I routinely advise my clients to let those nominate know 1) you have created documents, 2) where those documents can be found, 3) provide copies of powers of attorney to those nominated, and 4) keep the details to yourself.  If you want to share the details fine, but what if you change your mind?  It happens, and it happens more than you might think.

Air out your decisions may be a good thing, and it may not.  Ask yourself what good will come from holding a family meeting.  Would clear written instructions be good enough?  Whether the net assets are seven figures or five, emotions run high when a loved ones dies.  A meeting might air out tensions while you are alive to address them, or it may cause anger and upset that is unneeded.  Case in point, new parents share with husband's mother the selection of guardian for their newborn son.  The decision to nominate friends, not family, causes his mother a fair amount of upset.  As long as those parents do not die, the guardianship will never come into existence.  Yet, the grandmother spends the rest of her years a wee bit upset with the decision.  Had I been able to advise the husband before he told his mother I would have suggested "we have  paperwork in place, it's taken care of, but we are not sharing the details.  Might the grandmother have been miffed, possibly, but it would likely have been less than knowing relatives were not selected.  Family meetings?  They might be a good idea, and then again maybe not.  You decide.

The newborn who slept though the "discussion" about who'd be his guardian.  
Can you guess who the parents are?
Image by M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2013

Monday, April 15, 2013

IRS Flowers on Tax Day

This past April my family took traveled to Washington, D.C. for a few days.  While exploring the city I once called home, we walked past the Internal Revenue Service Building.  I quipped, I wonder if they have a drop box....I'd kind of like to pay our taxes in person.  Joking of course, but when looking around I spotted these lovelies and knew I need an image to share here, today, tax day 2013.

IRS Flowers, DC, M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2013

And since the focus of my writing is education on the issues of illness, death and taxes for the middle class, I offer you a link to a very useful article.  The 11 things you pay tax on that might surprise you.  Educational fees surprised a client of mine this past week; they are tax free if paid to the institution only.  Paying kids directly, for fees they paid a decade ago does not count.  And number 2 is one I see far too often, people add loved ones to the deed of a home or a bank account, and bam, they've made a gift.  Often a taxable gift.

Read, question, read more.  Taxes are not easy, but they are a part of life.  So stop, enjoy the flowers and find something uplifting on this day, a heavy day for many.

Friday, April 12, 2013

National Healthcare Directive Day, April 16, 2013

Image by M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2013.
April showers bring May flowers -- Happy thoughts for a hard dicussion

Next Tuesday is not just the day after your 2012 income tax return was due.  It is a day when doctors, lawyers, and others who work with the public on matters of health pause and observe the important of making advanced health care decisions.

Planning for illness, death and taxes does not likely rank in the Top 50 List of what you want to do this weekend.  While not fun, it is important.  And it is a gift to your loved ones.  Need motivation to face these hard questions?  It can be found in one word, "control".  By sitting down and creating your own documents you are taking control over 1) who acts for you if you cannot, and 2) what you want to happen if you are in an end of life state.

In terms of the "who", do not go with your knee-jerk reaction.  Your oldest child should not be named just because he was born first.  Your sister should not be listed because if you don't, she'll nag you until the day you die.  Nominate someone who is right for the job.  This includes: ability to follow your wishes, comfortable speaking with medical staff, emotional ability to stay together when you are gravely ill, and has the time to be at your bedside.  Remember, you do not have to name a blood relative.  It is about taking control and putting down what  you think is best.

Not everyone can afford to work with an attorney, and not everyone wants to work with an attorney.  Free copies of medical powers of attorney (in Wisconsin it is a Power of Attorney for Health and a Living Will) are usually available from your doctor's office.  But do not overlook financial matters.  If you are too sick to make medical decisions, you are also too sick to file your taxes, pay your mortgage, etc.  You can use a power of attorney for finance to nominate who controls your checkbook if you cannot act. All of these forms are available for free, for Wisconsin residents, on the Department of Health Services website.  I do not use these in my practice; there are key elements I find troubling.  Read, ask questions, and determine if they fit your needs.

With 50 different states in our nation, we have 50 different sets of laws related to advance directives.  We even have a variety of names to call these important papers.  To learn more about the specifics of your state and its requirements, please consult an attorney in your area.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

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Keeping a Will Safe

Image credit:  free image, www.sxc.hu

Making the effort to draw up a will is not common practice for most Americans.  The numbers range a bit, but reports state that between 50 and 70 percent of Americans do not have a will.  So if you are in the minority who do, ask yourself -- is it safe!

Gone are the days when lawyers should offer his or her office safe as a repository for your will (it gives them an unfair advantage when changes are needed or a death occurs).  A safe deposit box posses problems because when you die the document that states who can get into the safe deposit box is in the safe deposit box.  What to do?

Option one -- have a fireproof box at home.  Small safes or guns safes are popular choice among my clients.  Many already have one, or it can be purchased for a small fee.  Kept in the home, it is accessible when needed and affordable.

Option two - file the will at the probate court in the county where you reside.  For a fee of $10 per will, Dane County residents can keep a will safe at the courthouse.  A record of the filing exists, but the will is not actually entered or opened.  Filing instructions on the web are less than ideal, but from my experience to accomplish this you need:

  • original will in a sealed envelope
  • write your name and complete address and phone number;
  • name, address and phone number of your attorney (only if attorney is filing it for you)
  • a copy of the will, to be kept in your personal records, marked COPY Original on file at courthouse; and
  • a $10 check.
Courthouse safekeeping means you have to file any future changes (called a codicil), but is a nice alternative if you think your will might be destroyed, lost, stolen, etc.

Thanks for reading, and remember a blog is not legal advice.  Please consult a lawyer in your state for advice specific to your situation.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Buried in Non-Profit Mailings!

Save a tree, save money -- stop the mailings!  Image by M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2013

When a client decides to make a bequest to a non-profit in his or her will, a smile is guaranteed to emerge on my face.  What a lovely way to plant the seeds of a legacy, and you don't have to be millionaire to make a difference (the theme of my upcoming book).  Such a smile made an appearance on my face earlier this year when a client, facing a terminal diagnosis, took his belief in stewardship and named a list of nearly 40 non-profits he had supported during his lifetime.

Stewardship was his motivation; carefully overseeing the distribution of his final estate.  Sadly, my smile has faded.  Not only did this kind man loose his battle, passing away quite quickly.  Many of the non-profits he listed have poured a jaw dropping amount of literature into my office.  Some have been via email, but most have been hard copies.

Yes, contacting the attorney who informed the organization of a bequest is reasonable.  But sending glossy brochures and acting as though said attorney can now funnel an endless supply of clients into their sights is not keeping with the stewardship my client had in mind.  I'm a lawyer, a frugal one (I even write another blog about the upside of frugal living), and would love non-profits to wake up and see that all their paper is doing is making people ask "how much did that cost?" and mutter, "I certainly hope I didn't pay for that mailing!".

Non-profits -- you do numerous great deeds, but please, oh please, think before mailing.  Please do not blindly enter names and addresses into databases.  An attorney notifies you of being mentioned in a will, we do not recruit for you.  Save a tree, save money, save your reputation, and mail only when necessary.

And now I am going to sort through today's pile of mail.....who wants to make a beat on the number of pieces generated by my steward client?

Friday, April 5, 2013

What To Do With Mom's "Stuff"!

The purchase of a first home triggers many things: a sharper focus on property taxes in your area; selecting color schemes for dinning rooms; and in my case, finding a gentle way to say "thank you, but no thanks" to a mother wishing to transfer all the family "heirlooms" occupying her home to mine.

Yes, the toss to the next generation.  A discussion of this crops up in my seminars, but focuses on issues related to step-up in basis and or capital gains tax when those items are later sold by the next generation.  Of great important when stock in Coca-Cola, the family farm, or a Monet is changing hands.  The finances surrounding great-grandmas salt and pepper collection are non-existent.  But still, handling the desire of one generation to pass along items to the next can be a tricky situation.

My parents were keepers.  Born into families with little resources, stuff was hard to come by.  As such, they have a strong emotional attachment to rolling pins, vases, cookie cutters, and the like that they used as a child or inherited from someone higher up on the family tree.

As for me?  Nope, I place little to no attachment in tangible items.  There are a few exceptions, photographs for example are something I enjoy displaying in my home.  But for me stuff is cheap, it's easy, while time and memories are in far shorter supply for those raising children today.

And it was with pure delight that I discovered a little shop called Vintage Birch Barn, located in Evansville, Wisconsin.  I've known the owner since childhood; she is the younger sister of a dear friend.  During the week she and her husband go "picking".  They tighten, sand, scrub, and paint.  The end result is what someone once viewed as ugly, rusty junk, transforms into a decorating find for someone else.


Interior shot of Vintage Birch Barn.  Image by M. Gustafson Gervasi, 2013


How does this connect with my mom and her items?  The owners drove to her home, sorted through items that were collected over decades, handed her a check and carted them off.  Now a widow on a fixed income has some extra money, her home is a little less packed, I the daughter have less items to address when the time comes for her to sell her home, and a young couple with a family business has product to sell.  That is a win, win, win in my book.

So, if you are the generation that has lots of stuff and know your children are not interested, or you are the generation faced with clearing away all that stuff -- this is a great connection.  Vintage Birch Barn had the added bonus for our family of being located in Evansville, Wisconsin -- the very town the great-grandmother who collected salt and pepper shakers lived.  If it is too far for you, get on Google and search.  Trash to Treasure type stores are popping up everywhere.  A favorite is Fancy Glass Feeders -- all those old glass bowls and such make for a beautiful bird feeder when transformed!