No matter who you are voting for on November 3rd (or who you already voted for), you may want to start considering the potential legal, financial, and tax impacts a change of leadership might have on your family’s planning. And as you’ll learn here, there are a number of reasons why you should start strategizing now, because if you wait until after the election, it will very likely be too late.

Although the election outcome is impossible to predict, some polls show Joe Biden with a healthy lead over Donald Trump and the Democrats could be poised to take a majority in both houses of Congress. Such a Democratic sweep will likely have far-reaching consequences on a number of policy fronts. But in terms of financial, tax, and estate planning, it’s almost certain that we’ll see radical changes to the tax landscape that could seriously impact your planning priorities. And while it’s unlikely that a major tax bill would be enacted right away, there’s always the possibility that when legislation does pass it could be applied retroactively to Jan. 1, 2021.

With that in mind, in this two-part series, we’ll outline the major ways Biden plans to change tax laws, so you can adapt your family’s finances and estate planning considerations accordingly. Although you may decide to put off any actual changes to your estate plan until after the election, if you have any big transactions on the horizon, or if you have an estate that could be worth $1 million or more when you die, we suggest you at least start strategizing now. That way, you’ll have plenty of time to take the appropriate action before the end of the year, which will undoubtedly be a chaotic period regardless of who wins the election.

Focus on high net-worth taxpayers

While Trump has yet to release any formal economic proposals for a second term, Biden’s proposed economic agenda is essentially focused on raising some $4 trillion of new revenue over the next 10 years. The vast majority of this revenue would come from increasing taxes on high net-worth individuals. 

Under Biden’s plan, “high net-worth individuals” are taxpayers earning more than $400,000. Those earning less than that would generally not see an increase—and perhaps even a decrease—in taxes, at least in the short-term. At this point, however, it’s not clear if the $400,000 threshold would apply equally to singles, heads of households, and/or married joint-filing couples.

Although the specifics haven’t been fully ironed out yet, Biden’s plan would boost tax revenue in a handful of ways:

  • Increasing the top personal income and capital-gains tax rates
  • Reinstating the payroll tax on higher incomes
  • Returning the federal estate and gift tax exemption to prior levels
  • Eliminating the step-up in cost basis on inherited investments
  • Capping itemized deductions
  • Increasing the corporate tax rate

Increased personal income tax rates on the wealthy
Starting in 2018, Trump’s Tax Cuts & Jobs Act (TCJA) reduced the top federal income tax rates on individuals from 39.6% to 37%. Biden’s tax plan would put the top income tax rate back to 39.6% on personal income in excess of $400,000. 

This means that everyone earning more than $400,000 a year would see a tax hike. On the other hand, those making less than $400,000 would see no change in their personal income tax rate.


Higher maximum tax rate for capital gains

One of the most dramatic changes proposed under Biden’s plan involves the way capital gains are taxed. Short-term capital gains (assets held for a year or less) are taxed at the ordinary income tax rates, and under Biden’s proposal, those rates would max out at 39.6%. But the tax rates for long-term capital gains would see an even bigger hike.

Long-term capital gains (assets held for more than a year) are taxed at lower rates than short-term gains to encourage long-term investment. Those rates are currently set at 0% for individuals with annual incomes up to $40,000, 15% for incomes between $40,001 and $441,450, and max out at 20% for incomes above $441,451.

The Biden plan, however, would create an entirely new tax bracket just for long-term capital gains in which gains for individuals with incomes higher than $1 million would be taxed at 39.6%. So if you’re making more than $1 million a year, you’d no longer see the benefit of lower capital gains rates.

Increased Social Security tax on high-income earners
Another way Biden’s plan would raise tax revenue is by subjecting incomes above $400,000 to the Social Security tax. Currently, the 12.4% Social Security tax—also known as the payroll tax—applies only to the first $137,700 of your income. Earnings above that amount aren’t subject to the tax, and the cap goes up annually with inflation.

Biden proposes applying the 12.4% tax to wages and self-employment income starting at $400,001. This means the first $137,700 of your earnings will continue to be taxed at 12.4%, but you will pay no Social Security tax on additional earnings up to $400,000. However, any additional earnings exceeding $400,000 would be taxed at 12.4%.

The untaxed gap, or “doughnut hole,” on earnings between $137,700 and $400,001 would close over time with the annual increases for inflation. This change is designed to bolster the Social Security system by ensuring that the highest income levels are eventually subject to the full payroll tax.

In light of this proposed change, if you are expecting a bonus or other special end-of-the-year compensation, you should consider arranging for the money to be paid out by the end of 2020, rather than waiting until the start of 2021.

Increased estate and gift tax exposure
When it comes to estate planning, the most critical aspect of Biden’s proposed tax increases would be a major reduction in the federal gift and estate tax exemption. Starting in 2018, the TCJA doubled the gift and estate tax exemption from prior levels, increasing to $11.58 million for single taxpayers and $23.16 million for married couples. Any amounts above this exemption you give away during your lifetime or transfer upon your death are subject to a flat 40% tax.

The increased exemption amounts under the TCJA will sunset at the end of 2025, but if Biden wins the presidency, the enhanced exemption could be repealed much sooner. Indeed, Biden proposes to reduce the exemption back to at least the 2017 level of $5.45 million for individuals and $11.58 million for couples.

There are others who suggest the federal gift and estate tax under Biden might even return to 2009 levels, when the individual exemption was set at $3.5 million and the estate tax rate was 45%. What’s more, seeing that in the past lawmakers have made estate tax rates retroactive, it’s possible that these changes could be applied retroactively and go into effect as early as Jan. 1, 2021.

Whatever the final outcome, it’s clear that if you have assets valued between $3.5 and $11 million, you need to seriously consider taking steps now to take advantage of favorable estate-tax exemption rates that may never be seen again. To this end, you should consider opportunities to transfer assets out of your estate now in order to lock in the higher exemption amounts.

That said, transferring assets out of your estate, whether done via gifting or other means, can take several weeks to plan, set up, and finalize, so avoid the temptation to wait until after the election to start planning. In fact, you should immediately meet with us, as your Personal Family Lawyer®, to discuss your options and get things started.

By setting your plan in motion now, you can have your strategies in place and ready to go, so you can pull the trigger (if needed) once election results are in.

In a few days, we’ll continue with part two in this series on how to prepare your estate plan for a Biden presidency.

This article is a service of Liz Smith, Personal Family Lawyer® in Juneau, Alaska. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love.  That’s why we offer a Life & Legacy Planning Session,™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today at 907-312-5436 to schedule a Life & Legacy Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

October 19th-25th, 2020 is National Estate Planning Awareness Week, so if you’ve been thinking about creating an estate plan, but still haven’t checked it off your to-do list, now is the perfect time to get it done. If you or anyone you love has yet to create a plan, contact us, as your Personal Family Lawyer®, to get your plan started today.

When it comes to putting off or refusing to create an estate plan, your mind can concoct all sorts of rationalizations: “I won’t care because I’ll be dead,” “I’m too young,” “That won’t happen to me,” or “My family will know what to do.”

But these thoughts all come from a mix of pride, denial, and above all, a lack of real education about estate planning and the consequences to your family of not planning. Once you understand exactly how planning is designed to work and what it protects against, you’ll realize there is no acceptable excuse for not having a plan.

Indeed, the first step in creating a proper plan is to thoroughly understand the potential consequences of going without one. In the event of your death or incapacity, not having a plan could be incredibly traumatic and costly for both you and your family, who will be forced to deal with the mess you’ve left behind.

While each estate and family are unique, here are some of the things most likely to happen to you and your loved ones if you fail to create a plan.

1. Your family will have to go to court
If you don’t have a plan, or if you only have a will (yes, even with a will), you’re forcing your family to go through probate upon your death. Probate is the legal process for settling your estate, and even if you have a will, it’s notoriously slow, costly, and public. But with no plan at all, probate can be a true nightmare for your loved ones.

Depending on the complexity of your estate, probate can take months, or even years, to complete. And like most court proceedings, probate can be expensive. In fact, once all of your debts, taxes, and court fees have been paid, there might be nothing left for anyone to inherit. And if there are any assets left, your family will likely have to pay hefty attorney’s fees and court costs in order to claim them.

Yet, the most burdensome part of probate is the frustration and anxiety it can cause your loved ones. In addition to grieving your death, planning your funeral, and contacting everyone you’re close with, your family will be stuck dealing with a crowded court system that can be challenging to navigate even in the best of circumstances. Plus, the entire affair is open to the public, which can make things all the more arduous for those you leave behind, especially if the wrong people take an interest in your family’s affairs.

That said, the expense and drama of the court system can be almost totally avoided with proper planning. Using a trust, for example, we can ensure that your assets pass directly to your family upon your death, without the need for any court intervention. As long as you have planned properly, just about everything can happen in the privacy of our office and on your family’s time.

2. You have no control over who inherits your assets
If you die without a plan, the court will decide who inherits your assets, and this can lead to all sorts of problems. Who is entitled to your property is determined by our state’s intestate succession laws, which hinge largely upon whether you are married and if you have children.

Spouses and children are given top priority, followed by your other closest living family members. If you’re single with no children, your assets typically go to your parents and siblings, and then more distant relatives if you have no living parents or siblings. If no living relatives can be located, your assets go to the state.

But you can change all of this with a plan and ensure your assets pass the way you want.

It’s important to note that state intestacy laws only apply to blood relatives, so unmarried partners and/or close friends would get nothing. If you want someone outside of your family to inherit your property, having a plan is an absolute must.

If you’re married with children and die with no plan, it might seem like things would go fairly smoothly, but that’s not always the case. If you’re married but have children from a previous relationship, for example, the court could give everything to your spouse and leave your children out. In another instance, you might be estranged from your kids or not trust them with money, but without a plan, state law controls who gets your assets, not you.

Moreover, dying without a plan could also cause your surviving family members to get into an ugly court battle over who has the most right to your property. Or if you become incapacitated, your loved ones could even get into conflict over your medical care. You may think this would never happen to your loved ones, but we see families torn apart by it all the time, even when there’s little financial wealth involved.

We can help you create a plan that handles your assets and your care in the exact manner you wish, taking into account all of your family dynamics, so your death or incapacity won’t be any more painful or expensive for your family than it needs to be.

3. You have no control over your medical, financial, or legal decisions in the event of your incapacity
Most people assume estate planning only comes into play when they die, but that’s dead wrong—pun fully intended. Although planning for your eventual death is a big part of the process, it’s just as important—if not more so—to plan for your potential incapacity due to accident or illness.

If you become incapacitated and have no plan in place, your family would have to petition the court to appoint a guardian or conservator to manage your affairs. This process can be extremely costly, time consuming, and traumatic for everyone involved. In fact, incapacity can be a much greater burden for your loved ones than your death.

We, as your Personal Family Lawyer®, can help you put planning vehicles in place that grant the person(s) of your choice the immediate authority to make your medical, financial, and legal decisions for you in the event of your incapacity. We can also implement planning strategies that provide specific guidelines detailing how you want your medical care to be managed, including critical end-of-life decisions.

4. You have no control over who will raise your children
If you’re the parent of minor children, the most devastating consequence of having no estate plan is what could happen to your kids in the event of your death or incapacity. Without a plan in place naming legal guardians for your kids, it will be left for a judge to decide who cares for your children. And this could cause major heartbreak not only for your children, but for your entire family.

You’d like to think that a judge would select the best person to care for your kids, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Indeed, the judge could pick someone from your family you’d never want to raise them to adulthood. And if you don’t have any family, or the family you do have is deemed unfit, your children could be raised by total strangers.

What’s more, if you have several relatives who want to care for your kids, they could end up fighting one another in court over who gets custody. This can get extremely ugly, as otherwise well-meaning family members fight one another for years, making their lawyers wealthy, while your kids are stuck in the middle.

With this in mind, if you have minor children, your number-one planning priority should be naming legal guardians to care for your children if anything should happen to you. This is so critical, we’ve developed a comprehensive system called the Kids Protection Plan® that guides you step-by-step through the process of creating the legal documents naming these guardians.

Naming legal guardians won’t keep your family out of court, as a judge is always required to finalize the legal naming of guardians in the event of death or incapacity of parents. But if it’s important to you who raises your kids if you can’t, you need to give the judge clear direction.

On top of that, you need to take action to keep your kids out of the care of strangers over the immediate term, while the authorities figure out what to do if you’re incapacitated or dead. We handle that in a Kids Protection Plan®, too.

You can get this process started right now for free by visiting our user-friendly website: https://lizsmithlaw.kidsprotectionplan.com/

No more excuses
Given the potentially dire consequences for both you and your family, you can’t afford to put off creating your estate plan any longer. As your Personal Family Lawyer®, we will guide you step-by-step through the planning process to ensure you’ve taken all the proper precautions to spare your loved ones from needless frustration, conflict, and expense.

That said, the biggest benefit you stand to gain from putting a plan in place is the peace of mind that comes from knowing your loved ones will be provided and cared for no matter what happens to you. Don’t wait another day—contact us, as your Personal Family Lawyer®, to schedule an appointment, so you can finally check this urgent task off your to-do list.

This article is a service of Liz Smith, Personal Family Lawyer® in Juneau, Alaska. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love.  That’s why we offer a Life & Legacy Planning Session,™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today at 907-312-5436 to schedule a Life & Legacy Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

Being asked by a loved one to serve as trustee for their trust upon their death can be quite an honor, but it’s also a major responsibility—and the role is definitely not for everyone. Indeed, serving as a trustee entails a broad array of duties, and you are both ethically and legally required to properly execute those duties or face potential liability.

In the end, your responsibility as a trustee will vary greatly depending on the size of the estate, the type of assets covered by the trust, the type of trust, how many beneficiaries there are, and the document’s terms. In light of this, you should carefully review the specifics of the trust you would be managing before making your decision to serve.

And remember, you don’t have to take the job.  

Yet, depending on who nominated you, declining to serve may not be an easy or practical option. On the other hand, you might actually enjoy the opportunity to serve, so long as you understand what’s expected of you.

To that end, this article offers a brief overview of what serving as a trustee typically entails. If you are asked to serve as trustee, feel free to contact us to support you in evaluating whether you can effectively carry out all the duties or if you should politely decline.

A trustee’s primary responsibilities
Although every trust is different, serving as trustee comes with a few core requirements. These duties primarily involve accounting for, managing, and distributing the trust’s assets to its named beneficiaries as a fiduciary.

As a fiduciary, you have the power to act on behalf of the trust’s creator and beneficiaries, always putting their interests above your own. Indeed, you have a legal obligation to act in a trustworthy and honest manner, while providing the highest standard of care in executing your duties.

This means that you are legally required to properly manage the trust and its assets in the best interest of all the named beneficiaries. And if you fail to abide by your duties as a fiduciary, you can face legal liability. For this reason, you should consult with us for a more in-depth explanation of the duties and responsibilities a specific trust will require of you before agreeing to serve.

Regardless of the type of trust or the assets it holds, some of your key responsibilities as trustee include:

  • Identifying and protecting the trust assets
  • Determining what the trust’s terms require in terms of management and distribution of the assets
  • Hiring and overseeing an accounting firm to file income and estate taxes for the trust
  • Communicating regularly with beneficiaries
  • Being scrupulously honest, highly organized, and keeping detailed records of all transactions
  • Closing the trust when the trust terms specify

No experience necessary
It’s important to point out that being a trustee does NOT require you to be an expert in law, finance, taxes, or any other field related to trust administration. In fact, trustees are not only allowed to seek outside support from professionals in these areas, they’re highly encouragedto do so, and the trust estate will pay for you to hire these professionals.

So even though serving as a trustee may seem like a daunting proposition, you won’t have to handle the job alone. And you are also able to be paid to serve as trustee of a trust.

That said, many trustees, particularly close family members, often choose to forgo any payment beyond what’s required to cover the trust expenses, if that’s possible. But how you are compensated will depend on your personal circumstances, your relationship with the trust’s creator and beneficiaries, as well as the nature of the assets in the trust. 

We can help
Because serving as a trustee involves such serious responsibility, you should meet with us, as your Personal Family Lawyer®, for help deciding whether or not to accept the role. We can offer you a clear, unbiased assessment of what’s required of you based on the trust’s terms, assets, and beneficiaries.

And if you do choose to serve, it’s even more important that you have someone who can assist you with the trust’s administration. As your Personal Family Lawyer®, we can guide you step-by-step throughout the entire process, ensuring you properly fulfill all of the trust creator’s wishes without exposing the beneficiaries—or yourself—to any unnecessary risks. Contact us today to learn more.

This article is a service of Liz Smith, Personal Family Lawyer® in Juneau, Alaska. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love.  That’s why we offer a Life & Legacy Planning Session,™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today at 907-312-5436 to schedule a Life & Legacy Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

Although you may have just filed your 2019 income taxes in July, now is the time to start thinking about your 2020 return due next April. While it’s always a good idea to be proactive when it comes to tax planning, it’s particularly important this year.

In addition to annual updates for inflation, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act provides individual taxpayers with several new tax breaks, most of which will only be available this year. The sooner you learn about the different forms of tax-savings available, the more time you will have to take advantage of them.

Here are 6 ways your 2020 return will differ from prior years:

1. Waived RMDs
You are typically required to take an annual required minimum distribution (RMD) from your IRA, 401(k), or other tax-deferred retirement account starting in the year when you turn 72, but the CARES Act temporarily waived the RMD requirement for 2020. The waiver also applies if you reached age 70½ in 2019, but waited to take your first RMD until 2020, as allowed under the SECURE Act.

RMDs generally count as taxable income, so taking this waiver means that you may have lower taxable income in 2020 and therefore owe less income taxes for 2020.

 However, there are a number of factors to consider, including the state of the market and your living expenses, when deciding whether or not to waive your RMDs. Given this, consult with us, your financial advisor, and/or your tax professional before making your final decision.

2. Higher standard deduction

If you do not itemize deductions, you can use the standard deduction to reduce your taxable income. Trump’s tax reform legislation nearly doubled the standard deduction starting in 2018, and it has increased even more for inflation since then. For 2020, the new standard deduction amounts include the following:

  • $12,400 for single filers
  • $24,800 for those who are married filing jointly
  • $18,650 for people filing as a head of household

3. Higher contribution limits for certain retirement accounts
Depending on the type of retirement account you are invested in, the maximum amount you can contribute may have increased this year. The contribution limit for a 401(k) or similar workplace-retirement plan has increased from $19,000 in 2019 to $19,500 in 2020. If you are 50 or older in 2020, the 401(k) catch-up contribution limit is $6,500, up from $6,000.

On the other hand, the amount you can contribute to a traditional IRA remains the same for 2020: $6,000, with a $1,000 catch-up limit if you’re 50 or older. However, if you made too much money to contribute to a Roth IRA last year, the maximum income limits for contributing to a Roth have increased, so you may be able to contribute in 2020.

In 2020, eligibility to contribute to a Roth IRA starts to phase out at $124,000 for single filers and $196,000 for married couples filing jointly. Those phase-out limits are up from 2019, which started at $122,000 for single individuals and $193,000 for married couples. 

4. New charitable deduction
In most years, you are only able to deduct charitable donations on your income tax return when you itemize deductions. However, the CARES Act included a provision to allow everyone to claim up to a $300 “above-the-line” deduction for charitable contributions, if you take the standard deduction in 2020. This change was designed to encourage people to donate money to charity to help with COVID-19 relief efforts.

5. Adoption credit changes
If you adopted a child this year, you can claim a higher tax credit on your 2020 return to cover your adoption-related expenses such as adoption fees, court and attorney costs, and travel expenses. The maximum credit amount for 2020 is $14,300, which is an increase of $220 from last year.

6. New rules for early withdrawals from retirement accounts
If your finances were seriously impacted by the coronavirus, you may be in dire need of funds to cover your expenses. Thanks to new rules under the CARES Act, you now have more flexibility to make an emergency withdrawal from tax-deferred retirement accounts in 2020, without incurring the normal penalties.

Ordinarily, permanent withdrawals from traditional IRAs or 401(k) accounts are taxed at ordinary income rates in the year the funds were taken out. And pulling out money before age 59 1/2 would also typically cost you a 10% penalty.

But thanks to the CARES Act, you can avoid the 10% penalty (if under 59 1/2) on up to $100,000 in coronavirus-related distributions (CRDs) from your retirement account. You are also allowed to spread such distributions over three years to reduce the tax impact. Or better yet, you can opt to put this money back into your retirement account—also within three years—and avoid paying taxes on the money all together.

That said, emergency withdrawals are only available to those individuals with a valid COVID-19-related reason for early access to retirement funds.  These reasons include:

  • Being diagnosed with COVID-19
  • Having a spouse or dependent diagnosed with COVID-19
  • Experiencing a layoff, furlough, reduction in hours, or inability to work due to COVID-19 or lack of childcare due to COVID-19
  • Have had a job offer rescinded or a job start date delayed due to COVID-19
  • Experiencing adverse financial consequences due to an individual or the individual’s spouse’s finances being affected due to COVID-19
  • Closing or reducing hours of a business owned or operated by an individual or their spouse due to COVID-19

Because early withdrawals can negatively impact your retirement savings down the road, if you are looking to take advantage of this provision, you should consult with us and your financial advisor first. Also note that employers are not required to participate in this provision of the CARES Act, so you’ll also need to check with your plan administrator to see if it’s available at your workplace.

Maximize tax-savings for 2020
While the deadline for filing your 2020 income taxes isn’t until April 15, 2021, with all of the new COVID-19 legislation, the earlier you start planning your taxes, the better.

This article is a service of Liz Smith, Personal Family Lawyer® in Juneau, Alaska. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love.  That’s why we offer a Life & Legacy Planning Session,™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today at 907-312-5436 to schedule a Life & Legacy Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

While estate planning is probably one of the last things your teenage kids are thinking about, given the dire threat coronavirus represents, when they turn 18, it should be their (and your) number-one priority. Here’s why: At 18, they become legal adults in the eyes of the law, so you no longer have the authority to make decisions regarding their healthcare, nor will you have access to their financial accounts if something happens to them.

With you no longer in charge, your young adult would be extremely vulnerable in the event they become incapacitated by COVID-19 or another malady and lose their ability to make decisions about their own medical care. Seeing that putting a plan in place could literally save their lives, if your kids are already 18 or about to hit that milestone, it’s crucial that you discuss and have them sign the following documents.

Medical Power of Attorney
Medical power of attorney is an advance directive that allows your child to grant you (or someone else) the legal authority to make healthcare decisions on their behalf in the event they become incapacitated and are unable to make decisions for themselves.

For example, medical power of attorney would allow you to make decisions about your child’s medical treatment if he or she is in a car accident or is hospitalized with COVID-19.

Without medical power of attorney in place, if your child has a serious illness or injury that requires hospitalization and you need access to their medical records to make decisions about their treatment, you’d have to petition the court to become their legal guardian. While a parent is typically the court’s first choice for guardian, the guardianship process can be both slow and expensive.

And due to HIPAA laws, once your child becomes 18, no one—even parents—is legally authorized to access his or her medical records without prior written permission. But a properly drafted medical power of attorney will include a signed HIPAA authorization, so you can immediately access their medical records to make informed decisions about their healthcare. 

Living Will
While medical power of attorney allows you to make healthcare decisions on your child’s behalf during their incapacity, a living will is an advance directive that provides specific guidance about how your child’s medical decisions should be made, particularly at the end of life.

For example, a living will allows your child to let you know if and when they want life support removed should they ever require it. In addition to documenting how your child wants their medical care managed, a living will can also include instructions about who should be able to visit them in the hospital and even what kind of food they should be fed.

This is especially vital if your child has specific dietary preferences. For example, if he or she is a vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, or takes specific supplements, these things should be noted in their living will. It’s also important if you don’t know all of their friends or who they would want to be part of their medical decision-making should they become unable to make decisions for themself.

Additionally, remember to speak with your child about the unique medical scenarios related to COVID-19, particularly in regards to intubation, ventilators, and experimental medications. How such treatment options can be addressed in a living will can be found in our previous post: COVID-19 Highlights Critical Need for Advance Healthcare Directives.

Durable Financial Power of Attorney
Should your child become incapacitated, you may also need the ability to access and manage their finances, and this requires your child to grant you durable financial power of attorney.

Durable financial power of attorney gives you the authority to manage their financial and legal matters, such as paying their tuition, applying for student loans, managing their bank accounts, and collecting government benefits. Without this document, you’ll have to petition the court for such authority.

Peace of Mind
As parents, it’s normal to experience anxiety as your child individuates and becomes an adult, and with the pandemic still raging, these fears have undoubtedly intensified. While you can’t totally prevent your child from an unforeseen illness or injury, with us as your Personal Family Lawyer®, you can at least rest assured that if your child ever does need your help, you’ll have the legal authority to provide it. Contact us today to get started.

This article is a service of Liz Smith, Personal Family Lawyer® in Juneau, Alaska. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love.  That’s why we offer a Life & Legacy Planning Session,™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today at 907-312-5436 to schedule a Life & Legacy Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

The days of working for a single employer for decades until you retire are over. Today, you are much more likely to change jobs multiple times during your career. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, today’s workers have held an average of 12 jobs by the time they reach their 50s.

Since people change jobs so frequently, it is easy to see you might lose track of an old 401(k) or retirement account, especially if you only worked in a position for a short time. In fact, forgetting plans is quite common: it’s estimated that roughly 900,000 workers lose track of their 401(k) plans each year. And when you forget to cash out your 401(k) upon leaving a job, your former employer might no longer have control of your account.

Even if the company you worked for is still up and running, businesses terminate 401(k) plans all the time, especially during economic downturns. The company is required by law to contact you if they terminate the plan, but if they can’t locate you, the money can be transferred to a bank, rolled into an IRA, or even sent to the state’s unclaimed property fund.

If you’re looking to increase your retirement savings, one way to start is to make sure you haven’t lost or forgotten about any old accounts. Here are 6 tips for tracking down a missing 401(k).

1. Contact your previous employers: If your former employer is still in business, the easiest way to find an old 401(k) is to contact them. You can ask the human resources department or the plan administrator at the company to search their records to find out whether you participated in the plan, and if they still manage your account. Be prepared to provide the dates that you worked for the employer, your name, and your Social Security number.

2. Find the plan administrator’s contact details: If your former employer has shut down or merged with another company, you can try to contact the organization that administered the plan to see if they still control your 401(k). If you have an old statement, it should contain the administrator’s contact information. You can also contact former co-workers and ask if they have copies of old statements from the plan.

3. Review the plan’s annual tax return: If you can’t access your old plan statements, you can try to find the contact information for the plan administrator via the plan’s tax return. Most plans must file an annual tax return, Form 5500, with the Internal Revenue Service and U.S. Department of Labor. Search the website www.efast.dol.gov by entering the name of your old employer to find this form.

The plan administrator’s contact information should be included on the 5500. From there, call the administrator, and ask for him or her to check on your account.

4. Search unclaimed property databases: If you are unable to track down your account through your former employer or the plan administrator, you still have options. Depending on what happened to the company and how much money was in your account, there are a few different places to search.

The National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits offers a database where employees can register names of former employees who left retirement funds with them. By entering your Social Security number, you can search this database for free to determine if you have any unclaimed retirement account balances.

Additional online resources, such as missingmoney.com and unclaimed.org, similarly allow you to search for retirement assets in any states in which you’ve lived or worked.

5. Search for default IRA accounts: If your old account had a fairly small balance, it may no longer be in a 401(k). For 401(k) accounts with balances of less than $5,000, a former employer might have rolled the funds into a default IRA account on your behalf. Default IRAs can be created when your former employer is unable to reach you to find out how you want the funds paid to you. You can search for such IRA accounts for free on the FreeERISA website.

6. Search for terminated plans: If your former employer terminated its 401(k) plan, this doesn’t automatically mean your money is lost forever. The Department of Labor maintains a list of plans that have been abandoned or are in the process of being terminated. Search their database to find out whether the plan is in the process of—or has already been—terminated, and learn the contact details for the Qualified Termination Administrator (QTA) responsible for overseeing the plan’s shutdown.

Keep track of your assets

The best way to keep track of your retirement accounts is to not lose them in the first place. Indeed, one of the most important parts of estate planning is to create a comprehensive inventory of all your assets, not just your retirement funds. By doing so, none of your assets will end up in our state’s Department of Unclaimed Property, and your family will know exactly what you have and how to find everything if something happens to you.

With us as your Personal Family Lawyer®, we’ll not only help you create a comprehensive asset inventory, we’ll make sure it stays regularly updated throughout your lifetime. Yet, with the COVID-19 pandemic still ongoing, creating such an inventory is something that can’t wait. This task is so urgent, we’ve created a unique (and totally FREE) tool called a Personal Resource Map to help you get the inventory process started right now on your own, without the need for a lawyer.

Use this resource to complete your initial inventory of your assets, and from there, schedule an appointment with us to create and maintain your full estate plan. And if you haven’t had any luck tracking down your old 401(k), we can assist with that too. 

This article is a service of Liz Smith, Personal Family Lawyer® in Juneau, Alaska. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love.  That’s why we offer a Life & Legacy Planning Session,™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today at 907-312-5436 to schedule a Life & Legacy Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

A case on the Supreme Court’s docket for October could have a major impact on the parental rights of same-gender couples seeking to adopt or foster children. In February, the high court agreed to hear Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, which deals with whether taxpayer-funded, faith-based foster care and adoption agencies have a Constitutional right to refuse child placement with LGBTQ families.

In March 2018, the City of Philadelphia learned that Catholic Social Services (CSS), an agency it contracted with to provide foster care services was refusing to license same-gender couples as foster parents. This was in spite of the fact the agency consented to abide by a city law prohibiting anti-LGBTQ discrimination.   

The city told CSS it would not renew their contract unless they abided by its nondiscrimination requirements, but CSS refused to comply, and the city cancelled its contract. CSS then sued the city, claiming it had a First Amendment right to refuse licensing same-gender couples, since those couples were in violation of their religious beliefs. 

Both a federal judge and the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the city, noting the city’s decision was based on a sincere commitment to nondiscrimination, not a targeted attack on religion. From there, CSS took the case to the Supreme Court.

Rampant discrimination at the state level
LGTBQ adoptions are particularly contentious right now at the state level. The Supreme Court has yet to rule on the issue of the parental rights of non-biological spouses in a same-gender marriage. Given this, many married same-gender couples looking to obtain full parental rights in every state turn to second-parent adoption, as the Supreme Court has previously ruled that the adoptive parental rights granted in one state must be respected in all states.

That said, 11 states currently permit state-licensed adoption agencies to refuse to grant an adoption, if doing so violates the agency’s religious beliefs. In other states, the law specifically forbids such discrimination, but as we’ve seen in the Fulton case, those laws are being challenged.

We plan to write a follow up article once the Supreme Court rules on Fulton v. City of Philadelphia. Legal experts predict the case could have a significant impact on not just parental rights for same-gender couples, but nondiscrimination policies related to religious institutions at a broad level. In the meantime, same-gender couples should consider another potential option for gaining parental rights—one that doesn’t require adoption.

Estate planning offers another option

No matter how the Supreme Court rules, same-gender couples seeking parental rights have another option—estate planning. It may be surprising to hear, but it’s critically important for you to know that when used wisely, estate planning can provide a non-biological, same-gender parent with necessary and desired rights, even without formal adoption.

Starting with our Kids Protection Plan®, couples can name the non-biological parent as the child’s legal guardian, both for the short-term and the long-term, while confidentially excluding anyone the biological parent thinks may challenge their wishes. In this way, if the biological parent becomes incapacitated or dies, his or her wishes are clearly stated, so the court can do what the parent would’ve wanted and keep the child in the non-biological parent’s care.

Beyond that, there are several other planning tools—living trusts, power of attorney, and health care directives—we can use to grant the non-biological parent additional rights. We can also create “co-parenting agreements,” legally binding arrangements that stipulate exactly how the child will be raised, what responsibility each partner has toward the child, and what kind of rights would exist if the couple splits or gets divorced.


Secure parental rights—and your family’s future
If you’re in a same-gender marriage—or even a committed partnership with someone of the same gender—and you want to ensure that your significant other has as many parental rights as possible, meet with us, as your Personal Family Lawyer®, to discover the planning tools are available to you.

And whether you are married, or in a domestic partnership, even with no children involved, it’s critically important you understand what will happen in the event one (or both) of you becomes incapacitated or when one (or both) of you dies. Proper planning can ensure your beloved is left with ease and grace, not a financial and legal nightmare that could have been avoided.

With our guidance and support, you can ensure your partner or spouse will be protected and provided for in the event of your incapacity or when you die, while preventing your plan from being challenged in court by family members who might disagree with your relationship. Contact us today to get started.

This article is a service of Liz Smith, Personal Family Lawyer® in Juneau, Alaska. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love.  That’s why we offer a Life & Legacy Planning Session,™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today at 907-312-5436 to schedule a Life & Legacy Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

Anyone who has seen the hit Netflix documentary Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness can attest that it’s one of the most outlandish stories to come out in a year full of outlandish stories. And while Tiger King’s sordid tale of big cats, murder-for-hire, polygamy, and a missing millionaire may seem too outrageous to have any relevance to your own life, the series actually sheds light on a number of critical estate planning and asset protection issues that could apply to your family.

Over seven episodes, Tiger King provides several shocking, real-life examples of how estate planning and asset protection planning can go horribly wrong if it’s undertaken without trusted legal guidance. In this series of articles, we’ve been discussing some of the worst planning mistakes made by key people in the documentary, while offering lessons for how such disasters could have been avoided with proper planning and a trusted advisor on the team.

In part one  and part two of this series, we discussed how the nightmarish ordeal Don Lewis’ daughters experienced following his death could have been entirely avoided if Don had worked with a lawyer to create his estate plan. Here in part three, we’re going to shift gears and focus on the estate planning mistakes made by the self-proclaimed Tiger King himself, Joe Exotic.

The Tiger King gets dethroned

While the news that Carole forged Don’s will was a huge blow to Carole’s credibility and reputation, that very same week, Carole achieved a major victory over her arch nemesis, Joe. And ironically, that victory also involved fraud, although this time Carole was the victim, not the perpetrator.

On June 1, 2020, a federal judge awarded Carole ownership to all of Joe’s property, including his Oklahoma zoo, 16.4 acres of land, several cabins, and multiple vehicles. The ruling was part of a $1-million judgment resulting from a trademark infringement lawsuit Carole brought against Joe in 2013.

As we wrote about in part one, much of Tiger King was devoted to covering the bitter public feud between Carole and Joe that eventually resulted in Joe being sentenced to 22 years in prison for hiring a hitman to kill Carole. During this feud, Joe and Carole—both owners and breeders of big cats—repeatedly bash one another in the media over the course of decades.

At some point during the feud, Joe creates a company called Big Cat Rescue Entertainment (BCR Entertainment) for his travelling tiger cub-petting business in order to poach Carole’s potential customers. Joe even goes so far as to create business cards for the new company that feature an imitation of the Big Cat Rescue logo, photos from the Big Cat Rescue website, and a Florida phone number to trick people into thinking BCR Entertainment was actually Carole’s sanctuary.

This leads Carole to file a trademark infringement lawsuit against Joe, claiming he created the business cards to cause confusion between the two companies and steal her customers. The court agreed with Carole’s claim, and a judge ordered Joe to pay Carole and Big Cat Rescue $953,000. This judgment, along with the resulting financial stress it puts on Joe, is what ultimately motivates Joe to hire a hitman.

How not to protect your assets
Following the court’s ruling, Joe knows he stands to lose his zoo and everything else he owns to pay the judgment. Desperate to keep his business and prevent Carole from collecting any of his money, Joe attempts to shield his zoo by transferring title to the property to his mother, Shirley Schreibvogel, using a series of quit-claim deeds.

Discovering Joe’s attempt to thwart her, Carole files a separate lawsuit against Joe’s mother for fraudulent transfer of property. Joe’s mother eventually admits under oath during a deposition that the zoo and land were transferred to her by Joe to remove it from the reach of creditors, including Carole. This leads the judge to rule that the property was fraudulently transferred by Joe to his mother, and this judgment effectively reverses those conveyances, giving Carole control over all of Joe’s property.

Although we certainly don’t condone Joe’s actions, he had every right to want to protect his zoo and other assets from being lost to a lawsuit—it’s just that he went about doing so in entirely the wrong way and at the wrong time. In fact, had Joe used proactive planning strategies to properly shield his assets when he started his zoo, he most likely could have  prevented Carole from seizing control of his business—and at the same time, avoided the need to commit the crime that sent him to prison.

This brings us to our third, and final, estate planning lesson—and this one will focus on asset protection: 

Lesson three: To safeguard your family’s most valuable assets from legal and financial liability, consult with an experienced estate planning lawyer to put in place and maintain a comprehensive asset-protection plan—and do so well before you need it.

While we know most people would never find themselves facing anything remotely similar to Joe’s situation, just about everyone faces potential liability from far more common threats. Whether from a lawsuit, divorce, debt, or accident, the more successful you get, the more risk there is that someone will want to take what you have.

Moreover, it’s a popular, yet mistaken, belief that you can safeguard valuable assets like a home or business from creditors and lawsuits (or to qualify for government benefits like Medicaid to pay for long-term care needs) simply by signing over title of your assets to another family member. Yet, as we saw with Joe, transferring ownership in this way not only won’t effectively protect your assets, but can also lead to a myriad of other legal complications for yourself and others.

Although there are a variety of different planning vehicles available for asset protection, the most airtight strategy involves the use of highly specialized irrevocable trusts. Such trusts are set up so that your most precious assets, including those you want to pass on to your children, are owned by the trust, not you. Since you can’t lose what you don’t own, those assets can’t be reached by creditors, lawsuits, or in a divorce.

For example, if Joe had instructed his mother to set up an irrevocable trust for him right from the start, and then either funded the trust with enough money to start his zoo from scratch or buy the zoo at some point after it was up and running, the trust would have owned the zoo, not Joe. In that case, Carol would never have been able to seize the zoo, even if she won a judgment against Joe.

Alternatively, if Joe didn’t have a parent or another loved one to set up the trust for him, he could have established an irrevocable trust for himself and then gifted his business and other assets into the trust. While this strategy isn’t as airtight as the first and requires the passage of years between the time of transfer and the time of protection, it can still be better than nothing, especially if you plan well in advance of any sort of an issue.

Like all estate planning, for your plan to be effective, you must have your asset protection strategy in place well before something happens. If you try to protect your assets once a claim or lawsuit is even threatened, you could end up like Joe and find yourself not only losing your assets, but also charged with fraud. To this end, get your planning started now, while there’s nothing to worry about, and you still have every possible planning option available to safeguard your assets.

Planning lessons for the average Joe
As we’ve seen over the past three articles, when undertaken without the support and advice of a trusted lawyer, estate planning and asset protection planning can go tragically wrong. Although the details of the Tiger King saga are about as abnormal as they come, the lessons presented here can show all of us how to  prevent extremely common planning mistakes and apply to practically everyone who seeks to put a plan in place.

Indeed, if you attempt to handle even the most basic planning tasks, like creating a will on your own or using an online document service or transferring your property,  you’re placing everything you’ve worked your whole life to build in serious jeopardy, while opening your family up to becoming mired in costly legal battles, even decades after you’re gone. Meet with us, as your Personal Family Lawyer®, to ensure your estate plan works exactly as intended and your family stays out of court and conflict, no matter what.

This article is a service of Liz Smith, Personal Family Lawyer® in Juneau, Alaska. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love.  That’s why we offer a Life & Legacy Planning Session,™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today at 907-312-5436 to schedule a Life & Legacy Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

Anyone who has seen the hit Netflix documentary Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness can attest that it’s one of the most outlandish stories to come out in a year full of outlandish stories. And while Tiger King’s sordid tale of big cats, murder-for-hire, polygamy, and a missing millionaire may seem too outrageous to have any relevance to your own life, the series actually sheds light on a number of critical estate planning issues that are pertinent for practically everyone.

Over seven episodes, Tiger King provides several shocking, real-life examples of how estate planning can go horribly wrong if it’s undertaken without trusted legal guidance. In this series of articles, we’ll discuss some of the worst planning mistakes made by key people in the documentary, while offering lessons for how such disasters could have been avoided with proper planning.

A tale of two wills

Last week, in part one of this series, we focused on the estate planning mistakes made by Don Lewis, the late husband of Carole Baskin. Don, a multi-millionaire who helped Carole found Big Cat Rescue, mysteriously disappeared in 1997. Following Don’s disappearance, Carole produced a copy of Don’s will and power of attorney. Don named Carole his executor in his will and agent in his power of attorney.

In his will, Don left Carole nearly his entire estate—estimated to be worth $6 million—while leaving his three adult daughters from a previous marriage with just 10% of his assets. However, Don’s daughters claimed the documents Carole produced were fraudulent.

The daughters contend that their father was getting ready to divorce Carole, and because of the impending split, Don created a will that left his daughters the bulk of his estate, while largely disinheriting Carole. Yet because Don created this will on his own without the assistance of a lawyer, he failed to make and distribute copies of his plan to his daughters—or anyone else.

Don’s oversight ultimately proved disastrous, as the only copy of the estate plan favoring his daughters vanished from his office 10 days after he disappeared. His daughters alleged Carole stole the documents and destroyed them, so she could present her forged documents and inherit the vast majority of Don’s assets—and this is exactly what ended up happening when Don was declared legally dead and his estate passed through probate in 2002.

Although this is as far into the story as Tiger King gets—and where we left off in part one—more facts have come to light since the documentary aired that make the story even more scandalous, while also offering us additional estate planning lessons. 

The Plot Thickens

After seeing the documentary, Chad Chronister, the third Hillsborough County Sheriff in office since Don vanished, reviewed the old case files and assigned new deputies to investigate his disappearance. In June 2020, after enlisting the help of two handwriting experts, the sheriff declared the will produced by Carole as “100% a forgery.”

This was something Don’s daughters always suspected, but were unable to successfully prove on their own due to a lack of financial resources. After Carole first filed her copy of Don’s will and power of attorney with the court in September 1997 (a month following his disappearance), Don’s daughters challenged those documents in court as forgeries.

Court documents show that in November 1997, Don’s daughters hired a handwriting expert to examine their father’s signatures on the planning documents Carole produced. The expert concluded that the signatures were forged, noting that they had likely been traced from Don and Carole’s marriage certificate.

But Carole hired two of her own handwriting experts that concluded the signatures on Don’s documents were genuine. At the time, Don’s daughters said they didn’t have the money to continue to fight Carole over the forgery issue, so they chose not to further challenge the documents, and the court sided with Carole.

However, given the new proof of forgery, can Don’s daughters further challenge Carole in court in an attempt to recover their rightful share of his assets? Sadly, it looks highly unlikely at this late date.

The Clock Is Always Ticking
Under Florida law, the general statute of limitations for legally challenging a will is four years from the date the will was filed, which expired in 2001. And while Florida’s general statute of limitations for challenging a will can sometimes be extended for up to 12 years in cases of fraud, that term expired in 2009.

On the criminal side, both the sheriff and Florida Attorney General noted that the five-year statute of limitations for prosecuting Carole for forgery has also run. Of course, there’s no statute of limitation for murder, and the sheriff said they were pursuing new leads as of July. So there’s a chance that Carole could be convicted on a charge related to Don’s death, and if so, she would be forced to give up all of the assets she inherited from him.

Florida, like most states, has a “slayer statute” that prevents anyone “who unlawfully and intentionally kills or participates in procuring the death of the decedent” from benefiting from their will. Yet even if that were to happen, it’s unlikely that Don’s daughters would be able to recover anything close to what they would be entitled to, especially since Carole has had control of Don’s assets for nearly two decades already.

Given these new facts, what actions should have been taken to prevent such an epic tragedy from occurring? This leads us to our second lesson:

Lesson Two: To avoid putting your loved ones through the unnecessary trauma and expense of litigating potential conflicts over your estate after something happens to you (and it’s too late), you must invest the time and money NOW to get planning in place with a lawyer.

Although Don was quite wealthy, according to almost everyone who knew him, he never came across as such. In fact, he was a notorious penny pincher, who reportedly was even willing to go “dumpster diving” if it meant he could save a dollar or two. In light of this, Don undoubtedly thought that he could save time and money by creating his own planning documents without consulting a lawyer.

Yet as we can see, trying to cut corners and save a few bucks by taking the DIY route with your planning documents is a huge mistake. Indeed, the potential consequences and costs to your loved ones can ultimately far exceed whatever minor savings in time and money you hoped to achieve by not enlisting the assistance of an attorney. As we pointed out last week, if Don had created his estate plan with the support of an experienced estate planning lawyer, none of this would have happened.

And that same lesson applies here as well, particularly in light of these new facts. Had Don worked with a trusted lawyer to create, maintain, and update his plan, Carole would have been unable to pass off forged documents supposedly created by Don in 1996. And that’s because his lawyers, loved ones, and the court would all have certified copies of Don’s most recent plan, rendering any previous versions invalid.

The reason you spend the time and money upfront to hire an attorney to put a proper plan in place is to prevent your loved ones from ever needing to hire their own lawyer down the road. Once something happens to you, whether it’s your eventual death or in the event of your incapacity, it’s too late—you must act now. By working with us, as your Personal Family Lawyer®, we can plan ahead to predict and prevent any potential for conflict that might arise over your estate, and we can also help ensure that there won’t be any legal grounds for your plan to be successfully contested.

Moreover, we can also ensure that your loved ones, along with anyone who might have reason to dispute your plan, are fully aware of the reasons and intentions behind every choice you made in your plan—and they learn about these choices while you’re still around. In fact, we often recommend holding a family meeting (which we can facilitate) to go over everything with all impacted parties.

Contact us, as your Personal Family Lawyer®, today to ensure your plan works exactly as intended, and your family isn’t subjected to a nightmare scenario like the one Don’s daughters experienced and are still dealing with to this day.

But what about Joe?
Don’t worry, we haven’t forgotten about Carole’s tabloid-headlining legal battle with Mr. Tiger King himself, Joe Exotic. We’ll explore the highlights of their epic feud—and offer more estate planning lessons based on it—in our third and final article in this series next week.

This article is a service of Liz Smith, Personal Family Lawyer® in Juneau, Alaska. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love.  That’s why we offer a Life & Legacy Planning Session,™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today at 907-312-5436 to schedule a Life & Legacy Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

Anyone who has seen the hit Netflix documentary Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness can attest that it’s one of the most outlandish stories to come out in a year full of outlandish stories. And while Tiger King’s sordid tale of big cats, murder-for-hire, polygamy, and a missing millionaire may seem too outrageous to have any relevance to your own life, the series actually sheds light on a number of critical estate planning issues that are pertinent for practically everyone.

Over seven episodes, Tiger King provides several shocking, real-life examples of how estate planning can go horribly wrong if it’s undertaken without trusted legal guidance. In this series of articles, we’ll discuss some of the worst planning mistakes made by key people in the documentary, while offering lessons for how such disasters could have been avoided with proper planning.

The Feud

While the documentary’s dark, twisted plot is far too complicated to fully summarize, it focuses primarily on the bitter rivalry between Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin, who are both owners and breeders of big cats. Joe, the self-professed “Tiger King,” whose real name is Joseph Maldonado-Passage, runs a roadside zoo in Oklahoma filled with more than a hundred tigers, lions, and other assorted animals.

Carole is the owner of Big Cat Rescue, a Florida-based sanctuary for big cats rescued from captivity. As an avid animal rights activist, Carole goes on a public crusade against Joe, seeking to have his zoo shut down, claiming that he exploits, abuses, and kills the animals under his care.

In retaliation, Joe launches an extensive media campaign of his own against Carole, in which he accuses her of murdering her late husband, millionaire Don Lewis, and feeding his remains to her tigers. The feud between Joe and Carole goes on for decades, and it ultimately peaks after Carole wins a million-dollar trademark infringement lawsuit against Joe.

The legal fees and impending judgment from the lawsuit nearly bankrupt Joe, eventually pushing him to hire someone to kill Carole. However, instead of killing Carole, the individual Joe hires goes to the FBI and informs them of Joe’s murderous plot. Joe is ultimately arrested for hiring a hitman to kill Carole, along with multiple animal abuse charges, and he’s sentenced to 22 years in federal prison. 

Although the clash between Joe and Carole takes center stage and exposes key estate planning concerns related to business ownership and asset protection (which we’ll cover a little later) the most egregious planning errors are made by Carol’s late husband Don Lewis. In fact, the full extent of duplicity and damage related to these mistakes isn’t even uncovered by the documentary, and have only recently come to light following renewed public interest in the case sparked by the show.

What’s more, since the fallout from Don’s poor planning has tragic results not just for him, but for the very loved ones he was seeking to protect with his estate plan, we’ll discuss Don’s planning mishaps first.

Missing millionaire
Don, a fellow big-cat enthusiast who helped Baskin start Big Cat Rescue, mysteriously disappeared in 1997 and hasn’t been seen since. After having him declared legally dead in 2002, Carole produced a copy of Don’s will that left her nearly his entire estate—estimated to be worth $6 million—while leaving his daughters from a previous marriage with just 10% of his assets.

Carole was not only listed as Don’s executor in the will she presented, but she also produced a document in which Don granted her power of attorney. However, the planning documents Carole produced were deemed suspicious by multiple people who were close to Don for a number of reasons.

Don’s daughters and his first wife claim that Don and Carole were having serious marital problems before he disappeared, and that Don was planning to divorce Carole. As evidence of this, we learn that Don sought a restraining order against Carole just two months before he vanished, in which he alleges Carole threatened to kill him. A judge denied the restraining order, saying there was “no immediate threat of violence.”

Don’s daughters also claim that around the time the restraining order was filed, their father created a will that left the vast majority of his estate to them, and he did so in order to minimize any claims Carole might have to his property should he pass away. Additionally, Don’s administrative assistant, Anne McQueen, said that before he disappeared, Don gave her an envelope containing his new will and a power of attorney document, in which he named Anne as his executor and power of attorney agent, not Carole.

Anne said Don told her to take the envelope to the police if anything should happen to him. According to Anne, the envelope with Don’s planning documents was kept in a lock box in Don’s office, but she claims Carole broke into the office and took the documents 10 days after he disappeared. At the time, Anne was being interviewed by detectives when she received a call from the alarm company, letting her know that the alarm in Don’s office had been triggered.

When police arrived, they found Carole removing files from the trailer that served as Lewis’ office. She was being helped by her father and Don’s handyman. The handyman had cut the locks, and according to Anne, this was because Carole didn’t have a key. Later that day, Carole had the entire trailer hauled to the grounds of the big cat sanctuary.

Anne told detectives that Carole removed the trailer and its contents in order to destroy his planning documents stored in the lockbox. From there, Anne believes Carole forged the will and power of attorney she ultimately presented to the court.

Carole vehemently denied all of these claims. In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Carole said she moved the office trailer because her father claimed he saw Anne removing files from it a day earlier. She also insisted she never threatened Don’s life, and that he disappeared on one of his many trips to Costa Rica. She further claims that Don sought to disinherit his children in his will, and it was only at Carole’s suggestion that Don left them anything at all.

Although law enforcement investigated Don’s disappearance from Tampa to Costa Rica, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said the investigation failed to uncover any physical evidence, only a conflicting series of stories and dead ends. In light of this, Don’s estate passed through probate in 2002, and his assets were distributed according to the terms of the will Carole presented, leaving Carole with the bulk of his $6-million estate, and leaving Don’s daughters with just a small fraction of his assets.

While there’s more to the story surrounding Don’s planning documents and Carole’s suspicious actions, let’s first look at the planning mistakes Don made and how they could have been easily prevented.

Lesson 1: Always work with an experienced estate planning lawyer when creating or updating your planning documents, especially if you have a blended family.

If Don’s children and assistant are correct in their claim that Don created a will that left his daughters the bulk of his estate and disinherited Carole, it appears he did so without the assistance of an attorney. This was his first big mistake.

There are numerous do-it-yourself (DIY) estate planning websites that allow you to create various planning documents within a matter of minutes for relatively little expense. Yet, as we can see here, when you use DIY estate planning instead of the services of a trusted advisor guiding you and your family, the documents can easily disappear or be changed without anyone who can testify to what you really wanted. In the end—and when it’s too late—taking the DIY route can cost your family far more than not creating any plan at all.

Even if you think your particular planning situation is simple, that turns out to almost never be the case. There are numerous reasons why a DIY estate plan can cause them to be ruled invalid by a court, while also creating unnecessary conflict and expense for the very people you are trying to protect with your plan.

And while it’s always a good idea to have a lawyer help you create your planning documents; this is exponentially true when you have a blended family like Don’s. If you are in a second (or more) marriage, with children from a prior marriage, there’s an inherent risk of dispute because your children and spouse often have conflicting interests, particularly if there’s significant wealth at stake.

The risk for conflict is significantly increased if you are seeking to disinherit or favor one part of your family over another, as Don was claimed to have done with Carole. In fact, Florida law prevents one spouse from completely disinheriting the other in their estate plan, so unless Don was aware of this fact when he cut Carole out of his will, she would still be entitled to one-third of his assets upon his death, no matter what his will stipulated.

By creating your own plan, even with the help of a DIY service, you won’t be able to consider and plan ahead to avoid all the potential legal and family conflicts that could arise. As your Personal Family Lawyer®, however, we are not only specially trained to predict and prevent such conflicts, but our unique planning process can actually help create connections among your loved ones and bring your family closer together. In fact, this is our special sauce.

Finally, as we saw with Don, if your loved ones can’t find your planning documents—whether because they were misplaced or stolen—it’s as if they never existed in the first place. Yet, if Don had enlisted the support of an experienced planning professional like us, his documents would have been safeguarded from being lost, stolen, or destroyed.

If you’ve yet to create a plan, have DIY documents you aren’t sure about, or have a plan created with another lawyer’s help that hasn’t been reviewed in more than a year, meet with us as your Personal Family Lawyer®. We can ensure that your plan will remain safe and work exactly as intended if something should happen to you.

Next week, we’ll continue with part two in this series on the estate planning lessons you can learn from the Netflix documentary Tiger King.

This article is a service of Liz Smith, Personal Family Lawyer® in Juneau, Alaska. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love.  That’s why we offer a Life & Legacy Planning Session,™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today at 907-312-5436 to schedule a Life & Legacy Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.