Speak from Beyond, and Be Heard!

You can speak from beyond through your estate plan.  Each Living Trust I draft includes a Statement of Intent.  This trust section may carry little legal significance, but is often carefully crafted and reviewed by clients.  Clients can share heartfelt thoughts, provide best wishes and guidance, or even a caution or a stern warning.  These words are those of the client and they speak directly to others.  These words resonate.

The Statement of Intent serves multiple purposes.  If the Living Trust is ever challenged, provisions in the Statement of Intent may provide guidance to a court sitting in review or your future Trustees.  Dear cousin Agnes could be left out of the Living Trust for good reason as the Grantors of the trust amply provided for Agnes during their lives.  The Living Trust may be but a part of the entire estate plan with other trusts addressing distinct issues and assets which otherwise would be included in the Living Trust.  Simple statements can assist those who must interpret or administer the trust in the future.

Perhaps even more significant is the ability to use the Statement of Intent as the opportunity to provide specific messages to loved ones or others left behind.  Remind the beneficiaries that gifts have been left out of love and affection to make their lives easier or better.  If there may be the possibility of strife, remind the beneficiaries that you want to ensure that there are no fights over mere material possessions.  Or, like one of my clients, directly threaten the beneficiaries that if there are any such fights, the deceased will find a way to return to haunt them for the rest of their days!

The guidance can be as specific as the client desires.  If education, military service or religious endeavors are of paramount importance, directly tell those left behind through this Statement of Intent.  You can also counsel against certain activities or behaviors through this provision.  I have found that once they understand its power, clients embrace using this Statement of Intent to keep their messages alive.  If you would like assistance with your own Statement of Intent as part of your comprehensive estate plan, contact Michael Geiger at Geiger Law.

Who Will Feed Fido?

Dog Days Summer

67% of US households own a pet.  That means 85 million families have at least one pet!  54% have a dog and 29% own a cat.  These statistics translate to a large number of furry friends among us.  We love our pets.  We care for our pets and generally spoil them ridiculously.  Part of our pet care can also include planning when we are gone, but Fido and Fluffy remain here.  Pet Trusts can help you.

You provide for spouse.  You provide for your children and grandchildren.  You provide for all those important to you.  Are you going to simply leave your pets behind and guess that someone will figure out that they like the squeaky ball?  Will just anyone know that peanut butter is their favorite food?  Alternatively, you can provide specific instructions and the funding necessary for care and well-being in a Pet Trust.

Consider the following when creating a Pet Trust for your critters:  Identify the pets, the trustee(s), and the caregiver(s); Provide a detailed description of the pet’s standard of care and standard of living; Detail the instructions for the pet’s diet, including dietary restrictions; List veterinary information and medical history; Provide funding for the caregiver and identify how costs are to be distributed; and Give details for arrangements after the pet passes.

Each state has some provisions for Pet Trusts.  In Tennessee, the Pet Trust lasts for the life of the named animal and no longer than 90 years (think parrots).  All trust property must be used for the benefit of the named animal.  The value of Pet Trust assets cannot exceed the amount of funds necessary for the intended use.  A Pet Trust may have a trustee, trust advisor and even a trust protector.

The tools are in place to protect Fido.  Contact Michael Geiger at Geiger Law for assistance with providing for your fur-faced friends and all your estate planning needs.

Only the Rich Need an Estate Plan – WRONG!

No Limit to Wealth and Power: The College Admissions Scandal

During initial consultations, I often hear that complex, fancy estate plans with trusts are just for the wealthy.  Whether you consider your assets modest or possess vast wealth, you will benefit with an estate plan tailored to meet your needs and wishes.  Financially, regardless of your circumstances, an estate plan is a good investment.

First, a comprehensive estate plan addresses issues during your life as well as after you pass.  Health care and business affairs powers of attorney allow others to immediately step in and make decisions per your instructions if you are incapacitated.  A Living Will allows loved ones and care providers know your wishes for end of life determinations.  These planning documents have no relation to your wealth, but ensure that your own directives be followed in a dignified manner.

Regardless of the value of assets in an estate plan, they are your assets and should be addressed as you see fit.  You can employ the very same financial and creditor protection techniques as the Rockefellers.  Some of these planning features allow your beneficiaries the ability to preserve and grow assets left to them – benefits not to be overlooked because you do not find yourself in the top 1% of the wealthiest folks.

Also, a good estate plan can seek to completely avoid the probate process.  Probating an estate could take years and will significantly delay distributions to loved ones.  Every filing, every motion, and every accounting in Probate comes at a cost with filing fees and lawyer costs.  Invest in an estate plan to seek to avoid these costs and administrative headaches while gaining certainty, privacy and peace of mind.

Contact Michael Geiger at Geiger Law to invest in your own estate plan and protect your assets for future generations.

Happy 4th and Unhappy Relatives

Happy July 4th Week!  Many are on vacation this week or at least taking it easier with a mid-week 4th of July.  The Blog decided to kick back a little as well with reflections on the Silver Screen – Estate Planning Edition.  OK.  Very few, if any, movies follow that ever-exciting plot device of estate planning: “Ooh, will they choose a Will or Revocable Living Trust — or maybe even a Domestic Asset Protection Trust.  Oh, boy!”  Instead, the dynamic conflict and drama flows more naturally after someone dies with all left to fight for the spoils of the deceased.

With focus on the post-death battles for the riches, then, what can Hollywood teach us about estate planning and ourselves?

Secrets, Secrets, Secrets

Charlie Babbit spent life as an only child, rather spoiled, and growing more distant from his parents each year until they passed.  Expecting an oversized inheritance to match his oversized ego, Charlie instead learned through his parents’ trust that he had a brother; the brother had autism; the parents institutionalized his brother; AND everything except a vintage car was left in trust exclusively for the benefit of his brother — Raymond Babbit or Rain Man.

Charlie’s frustrations in not securing the expected death windfall from the estate is taken out in the form of anger directed against the trustee who refuses Charlie’s demands for money.  The trustee simply fulfills his duties to protect Rain Man.  Charlie’s ire should be focused on his parents who refused and failed to even mention the special needs sibling. The parents took their secret to their graves.

Of course, after kidnapping Rain Man and a cross-country adventure worthy of Thelma and Louise, Charlie slowly discovers brotherly love and a desire to provide and care for his long lost brother.  Charlie decides not to use Rain Man as bait for ransom payments.

The saddest part of Rain Man remains the parents’ secret which denied Charlie and Rain Man the opportunity of a lifelong relationship.  Perhaps Charlie would have steadfastly continued in his self-centered existence even if he knew of Rain Man.  We do not know.

Quite often, clients question whether they should disclose details of their estate plan to their children.  I counsel that, at a minimum, the children should be made aware that an estate plan exists with the plan containing directions and wishes of the parents.  I further encourage some level of discussion among family members especially if ultimate distributions and perceived expectations of the children may not align.  If an unknown sibling exists whose identity will become known only after death and that sibling stands to inherit everything, I can only suggest a different type of family counseling requiring advanced degrees beyond my law degree.

Words Are Important

I try my best to avoid crafting any part of a Will or Trust leaving anything to the “closest relative”.  My practice became validated in A Series of Unfortunate Events.  These novelettes, combined to form the basis for the movie, follow the misfortunes of the orphaned Baudelaire children; Violet, Klaus and Sunny.  The dastardly Count Olaf continues to plot the orphans’ demise in an on-going effort to gain their fortune.  The insane plots and crazy characters are not of interest here although they abound in the movie.  Instead, the origins triggering this series of misfortunes matter.

The Baudelaire tragedy begins with a day at the beach for the three children interrupted by the family banker and trustee, Mr. Poe.  Mr. Poe delivers the horrible news that the Baudelaire parents just perished in a fire which consumed the family mansion.  Rather than grieving the loss or addressing the myriad of emotions the children must be confronting, Mr. Poe swoops up the children to deliver them to their new legal guardian, care taker, and very distant relative, Count Olaf.  

However, Violet, Klaus and Sunny had never even heard the name of Count Olaf mentioned in their family and do not know him.  The children protest that their parents surely would have selected others as guardians such as closer relatives well-known to the children.  Aunts and uncles who were part of the fabric of the lives of the children could serve as guardians for the newly minted orphans.

Yet, Mr. Poe will not hear of such protests as the parents’ trust clearly states that the “closest” relative of the Baudelaire parents becomes guardian if one is ever needed.  Mr. Poe conducted extensive research to determine that the previously unknown Count Olaf resided merely cross-town from the Baudelaire family while all other relatives resided farther away.  Accordingly, Count Olaf, although a very distant and heretofore unknown relative of the Baudelaire orphans, indeed, constituted the geographically “closest” relative.  To Mr. Poe, the trust language could not be more clear with the orphans placed with the evil Count Olaf.  Let the fun begin!

The parents’ use of ambiguous language set in motion the Series of Unfortunate Events for the Baudelaire children.  Avoid your own Mr. Poe interpreting your Will or Trust after you are gone.  Provide specific and clear direction and instruction.  At times, descriptions in a Will or Trust may appear complex or cumbersome.  I can live with that approach if it ensures that the Count Olafs are avoided.

The Slayer Rule Has Been Slain

The recent hit film, Knives Out, combines a classic tale of greedy relatives fighting over the bounty with a “whodunit” murder mystery.  Successful novelist and ultra-wealthy head of the family, Harlan Trombey, is discovered murdered on his palatial estate.  As the movie unfolds, each character lays claim to the riches providing the rationale and basis for the position superior to the other seekers of the riches.  Certain characters form alliances to bolster their claims and undercut the efforts of the others.  Everyone believes themselves fully entitled to the inheritance.

This pit of vipers truly has their Knives Out prepared to stab each other in the back in order to advance.  And yet, each character possesses motive and opportunity to have murdered Ol’ Trombey.  Every character is flawed and equally unlikeable.  The plot twists and misdirections are classic.

Overlooked with all the drama in Knives Out is the Slayer Rule.  If you meet your demise at the hands, or due to the actions, of another, those who caused your death cannot gain from your death.  The Slayer cannot benefit in the slaying and cannot collect any inheritance.  Well-drafted Wills and Trusts expressly disinherit the Slayer.  Many states have now enacted their own statutory version of the Slayer Rule.

The entire storyline for Knives Out will not be revealed here nor will it reveal “whodunit”. The plot makes for an enjoyable movie even if the writers slew the Slayer Rule.

Blinded By Greed

Courtesy of the streaming services. The Estate hit the Little Screen in 2022.  The wealthy spinster aunt, played by a curmudgeonly Kathleen Turner, confronts her final battles with illness as her misogynistic, self-centered nieces and nephews appear out of nowhere seeking to position themselves to inherit the aunt’s fortunes.  Each niece and nephew believe a few acts of kindness at death’s door will place them in the best stead after a lifetime of neglect of the aunt.  Alliances are made and disregarded.  Backstabbing is the norm.

One niece convinces her husband to seduce the failing aunt in an effort to court favor.  The creepy nephew keeps attempting to seduce his cousin including directions to internet sites which encourage “love” among cousins.  Yuck!  Each niece and nephew is throughly unlikeable.  You either root for the least unlikeable niece or root for “none of the above”.

Even if these characters would otherwise be normal and act with some degree of moral propriety, the greed and potential to inherit everything drives each cousin to act without regard for their aunt, for each other, or for anyone else in their lives.  Of course, the surprise ending leaves the cousins with nothing except the ugly painting cast off to the ugly niece at the reading of the Will.  A final plot twist after the reading of the Will helps, but these characters remain fatally flawed.  

Unfortunately, in estate administration, such characters or their characteristics come to life all too often.  In planning out your estate, you may not be able to determine who may cause disruption and chaos among your family and loved ones.  In some instances, when clients are candid, such characters can be identified.  In those instances, the Will or Trust can include guardrails and protections to better ensure that wishes are followed and some level of peace remains among those left behind.

So, enjoy your own July 4th Week and even take in a movie if you wish.  Perhaps the cinema could replay a classic movie where the action is more civil and more polite than these rabid families bent on destroying one another.  You know, a movie like Jaws.

It Takes a Team (for Special Needs Planning)

Apologies in Mediation - Featured Image

Parents and care-givers for disabled persons in the Special Needs Planning area oft-times act with surprise when we begin to discuss the complexities in the process.  I understand that so many of these providers simply take care of the disabled person out of love and affection with no thought to the scope of services and care they provide.  We walk through the details of daily routines from personal hygiene to meal preparation and feeding; from transportation to hobbies and interests of the disabled person; from laundry to shopping, from medications to self-sufficiency, and all issues which regularly arise.  We then discuss finances, medical insurance, government programs, and anticipated future needs.  We also dive into the human side of the disabled person to gain an understanding of values such as the importance of family, religion, and other pieces of the fabric of life held dear by the disabled person and their family.  

So many of these issues are already woven in the daily life of the disabled person and care givers.  But what happens when the parents and care givers are no longer able or available to provide the care?  Then it takes a team.  After these conversations, the parents begin to realize that the proper team needs to be put in place.  

The essential team for a Special Needs Trust consists of the Trustee, a Trust Advisor/Trust Protector, and the beneficiary’s Advocate.  Quite often, additional positions such as an Investment Trustee and Care Manager are added to the team.  Of course, there is the financial side where the Trustee and Investment Trustee come into to play to ensure that proper and complete assets are provided for the needs of the beneficiary (without undermining government benefits).  The Trustee further ensures that care and resources are properly in place and available for the beneficiary.

The Trust Advisor or Trust Protector holds few, but critical powers, to be able to change the direction and focus of the trust as required for the beneficiary.  The Trust Protector ensures that the Trustee’s core obligations are fulfilled.  The Trust Protector is not there to second guess the judgment calls of the Trustee, but take actions up to and including removal of a Trustee under defined circumstances.  

The beneficiary’s Advocate is the position always in the corner of the beneficiary and, quite often, the voice of the beneficiary.  The sole charge is to express the specific needs of the beneficiary to ensure that they are fully considered.  A Care Manager may arrange for the services and care for the disabled person as well as providing critical insights into the on-going needs of the beneficiary.  

The responsibilities and obligations of each position can be detailed and carefully drafted to provide the greatest opportunity for the beneficiary to succeed to the fullest potential.  It takes a team to address these varied and diverse of needs.  For assistance with these Special Needs Planning issues, contact Michael Geiger at Geiger Law.