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.