Estate Planning for Our Children

I plan over the next two weeks to get my teenage kids to sign basic Last Wills and Testament, financial powers of attorney, and health care directives. Georgia law allows a person age 14 or older to have a Will.

There are two reasons why consistently I had put off this task until now. One, and I admit a degree of nervousness as I type this sentence, is that we parents simply do not wish to contemplate or envision any possibility of our children dying or becoming incapacitated. Getting them to sign their own estate planning documents can feel like we are pushing our kids too fast, and too far along, the pathway of life (and ultimately toward death).

Two is that for many families the hourly law firm rates for estate planning make basic, core planning appear overpriced, and a task, therefore, for some other day. Also, frankly, I failed for many years up until now to take time during my busy work-load to develop and create a well-written basic Will. I simply never had a basic Will I offered to clients.

In view of my own family situation, I finally stopped and took time to design and prepare an excellent, basic Last Will and Testament. It will work perfectly for my kids, and will be effective until they later get married or accumulate assets that warrant revisiting their estate planning. Or, it will continue effectively in place even if my kids get married (but with no Will provisions for their spouses). The Will has a no-revocation provision in the event of marriage.

This basic-Will task also demonstrates that creating simplicity is not easy. I spent time designing, tinkering, and deciding on what elements are optimal for a fine, basic Will. I am pleased with the result.

This Will, among its various provisions, refers to tangible and non-tangible property, tax and expense apportionment; “electronic communications content” [internet access]; allows, in accord with Georgia law, the executor to name custodians for property under the Transfers to Minors Act if necessary; includes a “No-Contest” clause that imposes litigation fees and related costs on a contesting beneficiary who initiates an unwarranted dispute over the Will or the estate; an express acknowledgment that the individual signing the Will is not in a relationship with anyone that he or she considers is, or creates, a common law marriage in any state, as the date of execution of the Will, etc.

I also believe my kids will find their moment of signing these estate planning documents a positive, notable point of progression of their continuing maturity and developing adulthood.

I urge you to consider having your age 14 and over kids sign similar documents.  I provide these documents on a flat-fee basis.

Divorce: Attacking a Spouse’s Unilateral Trust

One spouse creates a trust during marriage. A divorce later arises. Can the trust be excluded for alimony and equitable division purposes? Here is my recent newsletter centering on a recent June 2017 Gibson Georgia Supreme Court opinion that addresses a spouse’s $3.2 million funding of two trusts without the other spouse’s knowledge.  My newsletter was published yesterday by Leimberg Information Services. You may reprint and distribute my newsletter to other readers. Click here for this newsletter.  Also, click here for more information about Leimberg Information Services.

A Belated Fathers’ Day Post to Lawyers Who Are Fathers

My wife and kids are out of town for the summer, which has given me a great deal of time alone with our two dogs to ponder the ideas leading up to this belated Fathers’ Day post. This post is directed primarily to fathers who are lawyers. But, it has universal application for all fathers.

This is a philosophical post. And, I realize it may not be of interest to some readers; if so, simply stop reading here. Another reason for this post is that I am purposely adding it digitally to the perpetual web for my wife and kids, for their access now and later.

Here is the point of this blog. Lawyers are called upon to be the Rock of Gibraltar for handling important matters that affect clients’ lives and well-being. Lawyers are often the last resort with a responsibility that allows the buck to pass to no one else. The responsibility lies fully with the lawyer. Success or failure.

A lawyer when called upon to act or protect the interests of his or her clients cannot take on that important responsibility with an “I can’t”, “yes-man”, doubtful, or weak mindset. The lawyer – in the midst of the uncertainty with any disputed issue — must stand firm and resolute, reacting to the inevitable ebb and flow of the task that includes at times hope, doubt, praise, criticism, wins, losses, elation, disappointment, diversions and fatigue.

Here is my belated Father’s Day point:

My guess is that most lawyers (including me) pass along to their children the notion of being at all times strong, at all times resolute, at all times independent, at all times possessing a strength of mind and presence to handle any situation. All beneficial characteristics that can enable a child to chart life as he or she so chooses for any situation, no matter how difficult.

But, this heavy emphasis on strength and self-reliance also carries with it a strongly unspoken denial of our children’s feelings and emotions. Ask the children or spouse of a lawyer if my above summary is off point. My guess is it accurately fits most lawyers (both mothers and fathers who are lawyers).

On the flip side, which is an epiphany for me during this summer solitude, is what we lawyers fail to give our children.

That is, blinded by wanting our children to possess lawyer-like strength and fortitude, we lawyers do not allow our children to experience more fully their own development and metabolism of how to deal with their vulnerabilities.

We effectively thwart and constrict our children’s emotional bandwidth in response to how they otherwise can (and will) evolve when faced with struggles, disappointment, emotional-pain, periodic feelings of weakness, doubt, etc. Merely expecting our children to act like junior-lawyers in response to life and their circumstances is a kind of parental fundamentalism. Not much different than parents who believe religious fundamentalism gives their children an upper edge.

So, fathers; by all means continue to help your children develop strength and fortitude. These are gifts you are giving them. However, the change I recommend (that applies to me as a father) also is to allow room for your children to experience and develop their own response to the vast array of feelings and emotions that life presents. Against the backdrop of strength and fortitude, do not expect or require a sobriety of emotion for your children.

To Your Lawyer: “Would You Buy Your Own Legal Services?”

The theme of this post is for the legal services consumer simply to ask his or her lawyer the following question: “Would you buy your own legal services from your law firm, and why?”  And, I am not suggesting there cannot be a suitable, good reply to this question. I am saying the question helps consumers consider relevant factors in assessing legal services, including my recommendations below.

Among my persistent attempts to try and compel clients to consider preventive legal and tax planning to avoid down-the-road costly disputes and legal fees, I harp on the point that a legal services consumer faces the following economic conundrum when obtaining legal services, whether preventive or litigation, etc.:

  • There is realistically no way the consumer can gauge the quality of the legal services he or she receives; and

  • Without being able to assess the quality, the consumer has no idea of what the market cost is (or should be) for the legal services.

Considering the above two factors, and because law firms typically measure lawyer performance primarily on a lawyer’s billable hours, the consumer absolutely must keep a close eye on the efficiency of how his or her lawyer provides legal services.

Among the factors you, as a client, can consider are:

(1) Does your lawyer care about your situation or case? This might sound trite, but I believe most clients are able to perceive this important factor.  In other words, you do not want to be merely a cog in the wheel of your lawyer’s busy workload.

(2) Does your lawyer push down most of the work to lower level members of the law firm? This arises when your invoice shows 3 or 4 (or more) different billing lawyers, and in most cases newer lawyers, who are charging time to your file. Essentially, you are helping pay to train these other lawyers.

There is no doubt that some work can be handled well by newer lawyers in the firm; but keep an eye on whether these other lawyers are predominantly on the steep side of the learning curve. Require a balance by limiting this push-down approach. Let someone else pay the bulk of their training. Don’t just leave this factor open-ended.

Accordingly, and especially during the what-if, strategic, and developmental stage of your legal work, ask your lawyer to handle the bulk of your work himself or herself, without merely passing it down to a multitude of lesser-experienced lawyers. The judgment and experience of a more seasoned lawyer provide the greater value for legal services, compared merely to the lower hourly-rates of newer lawyers.

(3) Does your lawyer bring other lawyers to his or her meetings and telephone conferences, essentially as the note takers? How many meetings have you attended where the note-taking lawyers essentially say or contribute nothing during the meeting? Discuss this set-up with your lawyer and ask if (and why) this is necessary for your situation.

(4) Does your lawyer use email and other modern digital technology to enhance his or her efficiency? This may possibly reflect where your lawyer falls on the scale of creative openness to change and progressive ideas. [Some lawyers still refuse to use email and have their assistants print hard copies of their emails.]

(5) Do you get trailing U.S. mail hard copies of letters and memos from your lawyer 2 or 3 days after the matter has already been addressed or completed with earlier emails, phone calls, etc.? Tell your lawyer you do not need these hard-copy mailings to the extent of the related additional time charge and expense.

(6) Ask your lawyer, as part of his or her work, to provide you with short, bulleted, talking-point emails, letters, and memos. This suggestion goes to how much of your invoice reflects the time-consuming, law-review mentality among most lawyers (including me).

That is, by our nature and competitive law school training, we lawyers prefer that every single communication we provide to clients (and to anyone) be law-review perfect.  An A+ grade product.  This A+ approach is, no doubt, a necessary and essential goal for final court papers, briefs, legal documents, contracts, trusts, etc. And, a lawyer’s mindset and thought-process at all times must be at an A+ quality level.

But, for every email, memo, or draft document, if your lawyer clocks you for final, law-review perfection you will end up with a much larger legal bill than necessary.  Tell your lawyer on the front end: “For letters, emails, memos, etc., give me only a rough outline of ideas first and we can discuss them as we progress along, etc.” Then, as necessary, your lawyer can polish to law-review perfection the final communications or other documents. This recommendation goes directly to the time-efficiency and cost-effectiveness of your legal services.

(7) Finally, my late father was a lawyer. I am a lawyer. The point here is that most lawyers handle the bulk of their own legal needs.  Few lawyers (including me) face — as a consumer — the burden of paying a legal invoice. Lawyers can, however, be empathic and place themselves in the clients’ shoes so as to help better address how a client more effectively can obtain legal services.

Just Say “No” to Financial Institution Intrusion into the Financial Power of Attorney Arena

I increasingly get calls from clients who are concerned when they run into the following situation.

The financial institution where the client maintains an account tells her she must use only that financial institution’s power of attorney form, rather than her own power of attorney.

Furthermore, if the client stands firm on using her own power of attorney, some financial institutions will thereafter attempt to mandate that she (or the agent named in her power of attorney) sign an additional institutional form that operates as an overlay for the client’s own power of attorney.  This overlay form is captioned along the line of “ABC Bank Attorney-in-Fact Agreement and Affidavit for Non-ABC Bank Power of Attorney.” This form gives the misdirected impression the client can now freely use her own power of attorney, without the institutional power of attorney form.

The above ostensible “must” also sometimes includes the institution telling the client that its legal department will have to review the client’s own power of attorney. This often is where I get the phone call from my client.  And the word “must” generally never sits well with me in many situations.

So, just say “no” to the above institutional power of attorney forms. “No” to all of the forms. Stand strong with a persistent “no” and inform the institution you will use your own power of attorney, without signing any additional institutional forms dealing with the power of attorney.

So, why do I strongly recommend against these institutional forms (including the above overlay “agreement and affidavit for non-ABC Bank power of attorney”)? Because these forms in most cases include features that are targeted to benefit the financial institution, not you.

Among the key institutional form features are:

  1. The agent must agree to indemnify the financial institution against a broad range of items;

  2. The institution’s form mandates what specific state law controls, which might be a state other than the principal’s home state.  Or, a state other than where the agent lives, etc.;

  3. The form requires an agreement to arbitration for issues that arise with the power of attorney.

Also, back to the above legal department mandate. Don’t be alarmed if the financial institution runs your power of attorney by their legal department. Just give them a pdf or photocopy for that purpose. I have had these run-thru-the-legal department situations occur numerous times with no negative consequences. And, with my clients not thereafter signing any of the institution’s forms.

And, quite frankly, if I am an agent acting for my principal under a power of attorney and my principal, if incapacitated, cannot weigh in on these institutional form requests, I (as the agent) likely do not have authority to agree to the institution’s mandate without some preexisting agreement or discussion with my principal. This is likely a reason financial institutions are now pushing these power of attorney forms on their customers as early as possible.

In order to help give you the strength to say “no”, I recommend you make sure you have an updated, comprehensive power of attorney in place that you can point to when you push-back against these financial institutions.

Also, as an important aside, in Georgia the statutory provisions for having a power of attorney under O.C.G.A. Section 10-6-140 state expressly that the Georgia statutory form power of attorney is not the exclusive method of creating the agency.

Therefore, Georgia law acknowledges use of either a Georgia statutory form power of attorney or your own format of a power of attorney. I have not seen the above financial institution mandate tested fully against the backdrop of Georgia law, but my view is an institution will be hard-pressed to succeed with its own-forms mandate against the existence of these Georgia statutes.

Finally, the New York Times had a good piece last year (May 6, 2016) about this same power of attorney push-back from financial institutions. Click here for the link.

Urgent Post re Beneficiary Designation for Inherited IRAs

This is urgent as it likely will require you immediately to revise your IRA beneficiary designation forms to name as part of the beneficiary designation form itself  a custodian (and successor custodian) for any account that may end up with a minor-age beneficiary. Such as an inherited IRA from grandmother, etc. This discussion also applies to adding a custodian designation to beneficiary forms for life insurance.

This is another preventive planning feature that can save you (and your family) the headache of wasted time and legal fees down the road.

Why?

Georgia law, by express statute under The Georgia Transfers to Minors Act, allows you, while you are alive, to name a custodian for a future property interest for a minor beneficiary. Such as your IRA account that later might end up as an inherited IRA in the hands of your minor child or grandchild. This statute is under Georgia O.C.G.A. Section 44-5-113.

If you don’t name the custodian while you are alive, then at your death two hurdles surface:  One.  A guardian has to be appointed for the minor-child; Two. The guardian has to petition the court for the court’s approval of a custodian under The Transfers to Minors Act provisions.  At the end of this post is Georgia O.C.G.A. Section 44-5-117(c) for this burdensome procedure.

How to avoid these two hurdles?

My suggestion here is not legal or tax advice you can rely on as advice from me for any particular situation. It is only my general response for how to add the custodian reference while you are alive to the beneficiary designation form.

  1. Many financial institution IRA beneficiary designation forms do not include an option or space to add the names of custodians. You have to adapt the form as follows:

  2. First, hand-mark on the form itself an asterisk next to the minor-beneficiary’s name.

  3. Then, in the margin of the beneficiary form add a legend for the asterisk: “See the attached Exhibit A , dated May __, 2017, that I incorporate herein by reference.”

  4. Then, prepare a separate Exhibit A that includes your naming of the custodian (and successor custodians if desired) and attach it as an exhibit to the beneficiary designation form. Sign and date the Exhibit A.

Finally, below is the burdensome Georgia statute I referred to above:

Georgia O.C.G.A. Section 44-5-117(c) [bolding added;  note in particular the “if a guardian .  .  .” reference]:

(c) If no custodian has been nominated under Code Section 44-5-113, or all persons so nominated as custodian die before the transfer or are unable, decline, or are ineligible to serve, a transfer under this Code section may be made to an adult member of the minor’s family or to a trust company as custodian for the benefit of the minor if a guardian appointed for such minor considers the transfer to be in the best interest of the minor and, on petition brought by the minor’s guardian, the transfer is authorized by the court as in the best interest of the minor.

Why Are Divorces Expensive?

There is an well-worn reply among lawyers to the line:  “Why are divorces so expensive?” The reply is “Because they’re worth it.” Of course, this reply, no doubt, has multiple layers of meaning for every person. Especially depending on where one stands after a divorce.

But, on one level the reply makes a great deal of sense. I am a strong believer that clients benefit from having an experienced, knowledgeable lawyer. Obtaining good legal and tax counsel is a cost-benefit investment that in most cases produces benefits well beyond the expense and time. Lawyers can also help give their clients a comforting degree of repose and peace of mind.

Now, applying the above notion to asset protection and estate planning, unfortunately this planning often appears to clients, on the surface, to be nothing more than a transactional expense and time-consuming burden.  Very easy to put off until later. There typically, and understandably, is no strong emotional motivation for this planning, compared to the threat of divorce.

But, I also believe most people are aware of the thousands of reported court cases and anecdotes among friends and family illustrating the vast number of costly problems arising from the absence of asset protection and estate planning.  But, then again, we all tend to think these problems only happen to others. Not to our family.

So, a universal question most families need to ponder is the possible surfacing of a divorce by a son-in-law or daughter-in-law with war-like efforts to grab the other spouse’s inheritance. This question touches directly on asset protection and estate planning. In addition, and more subtle, are increased taxes (including income tax) that result from inadequate and inflexible estate planning.

Another universal point on this subject of preventive planning, that I repeat constantly, is: Don’t help line your lawyers’ pockets by getting caught in costly, and otherwise, preventable legal and tax issues. Seek out a lawyer’s preventive review of your situation ASAP. It is an investment, not simply an expense.