Estate Planning: What’s in your tool box?

What tools do you want to use?

Is this the first question that your contractor asks you when you decide to hire him to build a house?

Or, if you’re car stops running and you take it to the mechanic to be fixed, do you quiz him on which tools he plans to use in repairing it?

When you need surgery to save your life, do you make sure you learn all about the different scalpels and various medical instruments to be used by the doctor?

No? You don’t focus on those things?

Well, then why do people focus more on the estate planning tools than on what they want to accomplish with their plan?

Wills, Living Trusts, Powers of Attorney, various other planning or tax strategies. All of these are just tools. Tools in the tool box of an estate planning attorney who is there to help you build the kind of plan you want. If the plan looks and does what you want, then does it really matter what tools were used to get there?

The division of labor is much clearer in some of the other professions – doctor, contractor, mechanic, etc. But with law, it seems that attorneys have fed the confusion by hyping and selling certain “tools” instead of promoting their process of helping clients build a plan that works for them. Sure, some clients want to understand the tools, and that’s fine.

But, remember, the tools are not what’s important. What is important? Having your wishes, goals, and dreams carried out, in a way that allows your wisdom and values to be communicated as well.

My clients are already the experts on what they need to know. They know their families, values, what’s important to them. I am the mechanic with the tool box, and I can use whatever tools are necessary to help you carry out your plan.

So, if you want to work with me on your planning, please keep in mind that we want to focus our energy on the house we are building, not what kind of hammer is being used to build it.

Wealth Transfer or Wealth Reception – Part #1

You might ask yourself:  How do you define a successful estate plan?  or How do you define a successful life?

I help clients carry out the goals they have for themselves and their families. However, I always want to make sure clients have developed goals with a full understanding of what all can be accomplished with good planning. Sometimes they limit themselves and don’t explore some of the most important planning issues, until I prompt them to think a little broader.

Traditionally, many planning issues have focused only on the transfer of wealth. But most of us would probably agree that just avoiding probate or saving some tax money is not all that is required to have lived a succesful life. Isn’t there more to life than that? And there’s more to estate planning too.

There are so many more issues that clients want to address, once they hear about the possibilities. I think a good plan will carry out the goals you would have completed during your life, with enough time and resources. But since our time on earth is limited, we plan so our influence can continue.

1. If you could plan in a way that would protect your loved ones from risk or harm, would you be interested in hearing more about it?

2. If you could plan in a way that would set up your loved ones for greater success in the future, would you be interested in hearing more about it?

3. Is the focus of a plan simply to transfer the wealth, or to help that wealth accomplish the greatest good in our families and in the community?

4. What is money worth, except for what it can accomplish?

5. What could your money accomplish in those who survive you? Those you care the most about?

6. If you could communicate your wisdom, and your loved ones would apply it, what frustrations could you spare them?

7. What if you were able to transfer both your wisdom and your wealth, in what ways could that benefit those who survive you? How would it be better than just transferring one or the other?

9 Ways to Cause a Dispute After You Die – Probate and Trust Administration Nightmares

Often we get calls from someone who is facing a mess because a loved one died and failed to plan properly. So, my advice is this: If you want to create a mess for your family, don’t leave it to chance. Do it right and plan the mess yourself.

Here are 9 ways you can create a mess after you die…

1. Don’t organize your assets. Assume that what you own will fit in with your legal documents. Somehow, by accident, it will work out.

2. Don’t talk about what you are planning to do. Your wife and your kids (maybe from a previous marriage) can both assume they knew what you wanted. Leave it vague enough so no one really knows, and there is certainly no legal guidance for them. Also be sure to keep your financial situation secret, from your kids and even your wife. They don’t need to know yet.

3. Name an executor or trustee without much thought. Just name the obvious choice, regardless of their track record for honesty or handling money. Even though trustees sometimes run off with the money or mishandle investments, that probably won’t happen to you. Even though the person you chose has never shown themselves to be up to such a task, they will step up and do fine. Right? And certainly don’t ask yourself one of the best questions – “would I trust this person with my checkbook today, while I’m still alive?

4. Don’t pay for professional legal advice. Just do it yourself. Type up (or hand write) your own trust or will. Fill out those IRA beneficiary forms, and even customize them yourself without knowing the law. It’ll work out somehow.

5. Make promises to family members about what you plan to leave them. Then don’t do it that way. They will understand. I’m sure they won’t want to fight in court about whether your wishes were written down wrong or whether you were in your right mind. They will understand that you didn’t keep your promise.

6. Talk about your estate in vague terms. Say things to your wife like, “you will be taken care of” and “you won’t want for anything.” Say things to your kids like, “you will be treated fairly.” Don’t talk specifics, but just talk about generalities, so the people listening to you can
assume what they want to about what you plan to leave to them.

7. Don’t use a professional trustee such as a bank. You don’t want to spend money on something like that, where a professional will know how to get the job done and make sure that your wishes are carried out in a way that’s legal and proper. Much better to leave it to friends or family members who may not exactly know what they’re doing, incurring extra taxes or making messes that need to be cleaned up later.

8. Use your plan to give the family chances to learn to get along better. Create your plan in a way that creates conflict among your loved ones. For instance, name your spouse and a kid from a prior marriage as co-trustees. I’m sure they’ll get along well enough to be able to sort out your estate.

9. Name a family member as a trustee of the funds you leave behind for someone else. Put your trustee in a difficult situation after your death where they have to refuse to give some of your money to another family member, particularly when it’s someone from the other side of the family. And be sure not to give clear guidance about when and how that person should be able to access funds. This will put the maximum pressure on the trustee and increase the hard feelings of the person asking for the money. No matter how the trustee decides, someone will feel either mistreated or pressured.

We are obviously being sarcastic. Sometimes the lack of planning we see can be really frustrating! I’d much rather the Probate/Trust Administration part of our firm not exist. (This is the part of our team that handles issues after someone dies.) Ideally, everyone would do effective planning ahead of time. I say it all the time — bad estate planning breaks up good families.

If you want to be sure none of the above happens to your loved ones, we encourage you to take action today. It’s easy to put this off! But it’s hard (and expensive) to clean up the mess afterwards — and that will be left to your grieving loved ones. What a legacy…

So, give us a call today at 217-726-9200 to set up an Initial Meeting or RSVP for an upcoming workshop where you can learn more about effective planning. Your loved ones will be so grateful when the time comes and you can have peace of mind knowing they are protected.

What are you proud of?

Do you ever feel pretty proud of yourself? Kind of interesting the stuff that we get proud of. Here are some of the things I have been proud of lately:

1. stopped drinking diet soda. Used to drink it all the time, for years, but my mom kept telling me it would give me cancer eventually. Finally I decided it can’t be good for me, all that fake sugar. So I stopped. I forget when it was exactly. I think it was over a year ago. Since then, I can count on one hand the times I drank diet soda.

2. I ran a 5k. Actually finished it in 30 minutes. I think I may have come up with a new exercise program. Run a 5k every month and do nothing in between. I may do another 5k this Saturday, but I actually have run a little bit since the last 5k a month ago. But that last one was my first organized race ever. I liked it. Plus I got a free t-shirt.

3. I’m almost done with a Lyndon Johnson biography by Robert Dallek , part of my lifelong quest of reading a biography about every president. For some reason, this one has been tough sledding. But I only have about 100 pages to go. I’m proud of myself now, and will be even prouder when I’m done. Then I think I will next read the Nixon biography by Stephen Ambrose. (I’m a big Ambrose fan.)

Then I kept thinking about this stuff. Is this the stuff I want to be remembered for when I’m dead and gone? Strange how small things seem worth some pride even if it’s not anything of real eternal significance. How do you want to be remembered? What do you want your friends and family to say about you? What kind of son, husband, father, brother, friend, boss, employee, or neighbor do you want to be known as?

Ok, gotta go. Need to knock out a few more pages of that LBJ biography before bed…

I come from a people who…

I am sitting here at Springfield Clinic getting a bunch of allergy shots. 27 shots, 3 at a time, every 15 minutes (and on my birthday, even). What better time to post to my blog?

Who do you act like? In my work with estate clients, I get to hear about the legacy that came before them and the legacy they want to leave to their kids and grandkids. Those who came before us play a big part in who we are. Who do you act like in your family?

People say I act a lot like my granddad, Arthur Bitzer. He passed away when I was 26 years old. I can see the resemblance.

We were both very curious. When the nurse was in here a minute ago, she had the pulse oxygen thing on my finger. (how in the world does that thing work?) And I was breathing deeply to try to get it up to 100%. I did it! Once, when my grandad was in the hospital, he was moving his arms and legs to get his heart rate up to make the monitors change. Nurses ran in, only to find out he was doing it on purpose!

We want things to be efficient. In fact, we both, independently, used to do the same thing with the microwave. In order to save a few nanoseconds, we would cook something for 11 seconds instead of 10, or 2 minutes 22 seconds, instead of 2 minutes. Didn’t have to move the finger to another button that way.

We like to analyze things. For instance, if my grandad was watching a high school graduation, he would time how long it took to give out 5 diplomas. Then he would do the math and figure out how long it would take to get all 200 graduates through the line. I’ve been known to do that kind of thing myself.

My grandparents, Arthur and Marjorie Bitzer, played a big part in my legacy. They wanted to play a part in getting me started in my legal career, so years ago they paid my fee for the law school admission test, fee to apply to law school, and fee to apply for admission to the bar. They didn’t get to see me in private practice, since they both passed away in 1996 while I was clerking for an Illinois Supreme Court justice. (They never spent an anniversary apart, after being married 64 years). But on my desk at Edwards Group LLC, I have a glass box with my granddad’s initials on it, AMB. It used to sit on his desk at the car dealership that he owned in Salem, Illinois – Bitzer Auto Sales.

Anyway, who has made an impact on your life and legacy? How would you answer this question:

“I come from a people who…”

Can you speak the language?

Part of feeling connected to a family, school, part of the country, etc. is the language we use. Our family (both my extended family, as well as Michelle, Bailey, and I) has all kinds of sayings for all kinds of situations. Once a year there is a day where I can use one particular saying.

“Did you know that today is the only day of the year that gives a command?”
March 4th!

My dad said it for years and now I say it. What sayings does your family have? I have a bunch of our family’s sayings listed on my info page on Facebook. There are tons more I plan to add to facebook, but I can’t remember them all when I sit down to type them. Although when certain situations come up, I just come out with them, like my brain is hard wired. It is one of the joys of following a legacy from those who have gone before. That I can pass down stories and sayings from my parents and grandparents.