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

Gustafson Law Office on Facebook!

Enjoy this blog?  Then "like" Gustafson Law Office on Facebook.  Posts include news stories, cartoons, quotes, and other useful information related to illness, death and taxes for the middle class!  Thanks for reading!

Keeping a Will Safe

Image credit:  free image,

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!