Monday, February 19, 2018

Beware of The Trust Mill

When you hit a certain age you can bet on receiving some sort of invite in the mail offering you a free dinner at lovely restaurant close to your home, served with a side lecture on 101 ways to avoid probate.  Now I love a free meal, but proceed with caution, it  may be a trust mill.

What's a trust mill?  It's usually an LLC that sets up shop in an area for several months, fires off a mass mailing to people over a certain age, gives you free food and attempts to scare you into a Living Revocable Trust.  This sales pitch is likely to contain lies, all designed to get you to sign up for a $5,000 or more trust document.  And chances are fairly good the speakers are not attorneys.

I'm not alone in my dislike of trust mills.  This was recently posted on a Wisconsin Estate Planners Listserve:
"Thought all you fine people should know the truth:  I have a nice lady whose elderly parents are about to become victims of a trust mill.  These fine folks tell the elderly that they should stay away from lawyers because probate costs 8% of the estate and takes 2 years."

  • Lie number one, Wisconsin has a probate fee of 0.2 percent, not 8%
  • Lie number two, probate can take as little as 90 days, but more like 8-12 months depending on the time of death.  My mother died on 2/16/14.....I had to wait until February 2015 so that final income tax returns could be filed.
  • Lie number three, not all assets will go through probate.  Many assets have direct beneficiaries: retirement accounts, bank accounts, life insurance, even real estate in Wisconsin can have a TOD Deed in place.  And the older population often rents and has fewer financial instruments if they have consolidated.
  • Lie number four, the folks running Trust Mills are most likely not attorneys and cannot actually help you fund the trust (that means putting assets into the trust, if that isn't done probate would happen any way).  When in doubt if the person is an attorney ask them for his/her State Bar Number.  A real attorney can recite that number in a flash, we type it all the time.

Being the first in my family to attend college and the child of blue-collar workers, I know people work hard for their money.  It really bothers me to see this type of company roll into town and siphon off $5k or more from people who just didn't know the facts about probate in Wisconsin.

Windmills are lovely, especially when you stumble across one in Sweden.  Trust mills are not so lovely.  Consumer beware.

Photo my M. Gustafson Gervasi - Malmo, Sweden, March 2016

Monday, January 29, 2018

Children's Literature: An Unlikely Source of Estate Planning Lessons

Image result for image book matilda

Think Children's Literature and Estate Planning lessons do not go hand in hand? Think again. 

This phenomenon first hit me in 2014 when I watched Disney's film Cinderella with my then preschool aged children.  As I said then in a blog post, if you are a parent without a will nominating a guardian for your child(ren) and setting up a children's trusts, watch Cinderella and you'll find your motivation.

Each new year of parenting has brought changes: diapers are a thing of the past, larger and larger bowls of oatmeal are required for the kids' breakfast, and the books and films they digest grow in complexity.  In the Treasure Hunters Series by Jams Patterson four adolescent siblings navigate the world of espionage and foreign seas in the midst of parents lost at sea.  Pulling his nose from the book my son raised a question -- "mom, what's 'their legal guardian' mean?"  Most recently it was Roald Dahl's Matilda that caused me to analyze and estate planning problem within the plot of a classic kids book -- a missing will and a crazed relative.

Matilda is the precocious protagonist of this 1988 classic kids book of the same name. Yet it is Ms. Honey, Matilda's teacher, that presents the link to keeping wills safe.  As a back story the reader learns that Ms. Honey lives a life of poverty while her aunt, and head teacher at the school where she works, lives in Ms. Honey's upscale childhood home.  It appears that the aunt took possession of the house when Ms. Honey's father (a widower, of course) died.  In the end of the book the will is found, Ms. Honey is declared the proper heir, and she returns to her home and the comforts of modern life (running water for example).  As both a mother and an estate planner, I shudder when I think about a parent's will being "lost" and unscrupulous relatives sliding in to claim possession or control of assets and/or child(ren).  You just cannot lose your will!  We live in the digital age, but when it comes to wills, the original hard copy is required.

Here in Dane County, Wisconsin one can file his/her will for "safe keeping" with the court for a $10 fee.  It is stored, in a sealed envelope, in the courts records.  Nothing is ever perfect, but my parental gut tells me the courts record system is safer than anything I could put in place at home.  Phew, one worry I can set aside as we pass through the stages of child development and the ensuing books and movies of youth.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

What I've Been Reading: The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning

It is not often that I find one book that captures so many of my core interests, but I hit the trifecta with The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter by Margareta Magnusson.  This little book hits on my key interests: one, it relates to my practice of estate planning and probate administration; two, it nourishes my frugal lifestyle; and three, it feeds my obsession with the Nordic way of life. 

Billed the next big fad to hit the US, Swedish Death Cleaning means to remove unnecessary things from your home, making the home orderly and nice at the time you depart Mother Earth.  At just over 100 pages, the book is a light-hearted memoir of the author’s later life when she “death cleaned” following the passing of loved ones.  Sprinkled throughout the book are suggestions for motivating yourself to get started and completing the act of taking control of your personal items to declare what is meaningful and purge the rest in creative and earth-friendly ways. 

I would add to Magnusson’s work two thoughts: one, death cleaning need not be reserved for those 65+, no age is immune to taking a final breath; and two, do not overlook the digital clutter you have accumulated -- digital photos, social media accounts, and countless megabytes of stored documents. 

If you are interested in learning more or discussing the idea of Swedish Death Cleaning, join me for a book talk on Saturday, February 10th, 2pm at the Cross Plains public library.  Library staff request pre-registration for this FREE event, which can be done online at