New Trends for the End

We each have our own unique personalities in life, so it makes sense that those differences would be expressed in the way we choose to go out. And by going out, I mean to the afterlife, ceasing to exist, to the great beyond, passing on, or just plain dead.

The way that we talk about our own mortal end varies greatly depending upon our religion, cultural beliefs, and even career choice. Below are a few examples of how our choices in life, might impact our choices for the end.

Keeping Things Under Control

If you’re one to plan everything and you like a good party, then you probably have enjoyed planning a few special events. Maybe you threw a graduation party, a surprise birthday party, and in this day and age, possibly a wedding or two. If you’d like the chance, you can plan your funeral party too.

According to a recent New York Magazine article, planning fabulous funerals is becoming all the rage. Elizabeth Meyer, who used to work in design and fashion PR, is now Director of Family Services for Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel, which handles funerals for many celebrities. Meyer says, “People get surprisingly into it. They call quite a bit to change details, like what they want to wear or the location of the luncheon after.”

She Wouldn’t Be Caught Dead Without Make-Up

Some women prefer the natural look. Others literally and figuratively would not be caught dead without make-up. If you’re in the London area and are part of the latter group, a collaborative effort between Leverton & Sons, a funeral home, and Illamasqua, a company that brings “ritual beauty to the final act,” might be for you. Their make-up probably won’t suit everyone’s taste, but they have some very positive comments on their blog.

Their blog post announcing the service says, “Illamasqua encourages people to self-express and embrace their alter ego in every way – why should this be any different when you pass away? It is a celebration of life, and one that should be indulged for your last glamorous look.”

Practical & Easy

For those who are focused on keeping things quick and convenient for their guests, a drive-thru funeral might be preferred. A Los Angeles Times article says that there are a few places in the country offering the service. At least one is in Chicago, another in Louisiana, and one in Southern California.

Peggy Scott Adams, the owner of Robert L. Adams Mortuary in Compton says, “You can come by after work, you don’t need to deal with parking, you can sign the book outside and the family knows that you paid your respects.”

Ask An Archeologist

Most of us are not used to the idea of dead bodies. We don’t see them normally and that’s how we prefer it. Doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals are more familiar with death. Yet archeologists might be even more familiar with death than anyone.

Colleen Morgan, an Archaeology Ph.D. candidate, writes a blog called MiddleSavagery. In a blog post, she writes that after digging up a few people, most archaeologists come up with a burial plan. Morgan mentions the idea of DIY burials that she has read about as a concept that is part of the environmental movement. Given the archaeologist’s unusual relationship to death in the Western world, she wonders if there is a way that they as a profession can do a greater good.

“[C]an we help the people that wish to be buried in an environmentally friendly way while not running afoul of very good local laws that protect water tables and prevent disease? Can we use our knowledge of site depositional processes and decomposition, our understanding of burial practices around the world to help people come to terms with the inevitable? … Is there an activist mortuary archaeology?”

These are some very poignant questions. Archeologists playing a new role in our understanding of present death instead of in a historical context. These are some revolutionary words indeed.

By: Lisa C. Johnson, Esq.

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Digital Footprints: Your Online Legacy

Since you’re reading this article, you are probably reading it online. You may have even found it via Twitter or Facebook. Besides getting much of our news and information online, many of us love social networking sites (SNS) where we can interact with friends, colleagues, and other like-minded souls.

A recent Pew Internet study, called Social Networking Sites and Our Lives, found that 79% of American adults said they used the Internet. 47% of adults or 59% of Internet users, say they use at least one SNS. This is close to double what it was in 2008. The study also found that the average age of adult SNS users shifted from 33 in 2008 to 38 in 2010. Over half of all adult SNS users are now over the age of 35.

For those involved in the blogging world long enough, most have probably experienced learning about the death of a fellow blogger or online friend. It’s never easy and usually a gut-wrenching shock. As the years go by, it happens more often. We live so much of our lives online. But what happens to our online personas when we die?

The Digital Beyond is a website that explores these issues in-depth. The creators of the website, Evan Carroll and John Romano, wrote a book called Your Digital Afterlife. In an NPR interview, Romano suggests that a Digital Executor be named to handle digital belongings. He explains, “It’s very possible that the person who’s handling your estate may not be the person who has the technical understanding to take care of your digital things.” They both suggest creating an inventory of online accounts, so the Digital Executor has all necessary information.

In this era of Facebook, another aspect of death online is leaving tributes on the walls of those who have recently passed. It’s a way for people to come together, remember the person, and to grieve. However, sometimes not everyone has been notified of the death. For a close family member to learn about a relative’s passing via SNS is obviously not the ideal.

Blogger and attorney Tom Stasiuk wrote about his experience where a friend’s family learned about his death on Facebook. News spread so quickly that the family hadn’t even been notified before.

Sometimes the speed of the online world may need to slow down a bit to keep pace with and respect for our lives offline. Making our way through the Internet presents situations and challenges that many of us never dreamed of. But as we each share our experiences, maybe we can all help one another to make it a bit easier.

By: Lisa C. Johnson

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Estate Planning for Agribusiness

In the popular media, the romance of “city girl falls in love with farmer” seems to be spreading and is quite captivating. Penelope Trunk, founder of Brazen Careerist, wrote about how she fell in love with and married a farmer. Book author and food blogger Ree Drummond, who founded, fell in love with a cowboy, married him, and now lives on a working cattle ranch.

A recent New York Times article explores the issue of agritourism and how many small family farms are now offering farm stays as a way to add income and hold on to the family farm. The online game Farmville has over 37 million monthly active users on Facebook. More and more of us buy our food at Farmers’ Markets and participate in Community Supported Agriculture, so we can get our food fresh from the farm.

Americans seem to have a growing fascination with farms. Maybe, because life on a farm is so different from our daily experience, yet ironically the farm feeds each of us everyday.

The Farm Legacy

For farmers, ranchers, and other agribusiness owners, making a living from the land is not only a business; it is often a family legacy. The business has been passed down one generation to the next. And each generation must decide if they will continue that legacy, how they will do it, and if they can keep it profitable enough to survive and pass down to their children.

Land ownership issues and the roles of siblings often come into play. How was the land transferred? Did the parents have a will? Will the children inherit land in equal shares? What if some of them don’t farm? Do the siblings have to form a partnership to operate the farm together? What are the tax implications? What is a Testamentary Farmland Trust?

There are many issues to consider and many families are not prepared to answer these questions. When it comes to farm transition, very specific advice is needed and an agricultural estate tax attorney licensed in your state should be consulted.

The Legacy Project

Farm Journal Media’s goal is to ensure that there is multigenerational success in the agricultural community. Their plan over the next decade is to raise awareness, provide education, tools, and advice to help with their mission.

According to the website, “The median age of the U.S. farmer today is 58 years, yet only 20 percent of farmers report being confident in succession plans for their businesses while 80% plan to transition it to the next generation,” explained Andy Weber, president and CEO of Farm Journal Media. “The need for succession education and tools cannot be overstated in its importance to individual farm families of this country and to the long-term viability of the U.S. agricultural system as a whole. There is nothing more core to sustainability in agriculture than the ability to provide succession to the next generation.”

The Legacy Project is also following three farm families over time and showing how they work through the process of succession planning and land transfer.

By: Lisa C. Johnson, Esq.

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The Psychology of Estate Planning

Summer is in full force. Most of us are far more concerned with the UV Index and humidity level than estate planning. But only two things in life are certain – death and taxes.

The government gives us no choice in the matter of dealing with our taxes. The looming date of April 15th can strike terror in the hearts and minds of even the strongest among us. Few enjoy doing their taxes. Even if they’re getting a refund!

Unlike taxes, there’s no government requirement that we engage in any sort of annual estate planning. Our estate will file our last tax return and the government will get its share.

Contemplating our own mortality is no summer walk on the beach. But having a plan gives us choices and having choices is something that most of us value as an important part of life.

Preparedness & The Business Of You

An article geared toward small business owners on the American Express OPEN Forum website states that great leadership is all about managing uncertainty. Managing our life, so that we can get the most out of it makes sense too.

The writer Scott Belsky says, “We tend to lose perspective when confronted with the unexpected. Caught unprepared, we amplify the importance of unexpected events, allowing them to consume an exorbitant amount of our emotional energy and resources.”

Not much is more important or emotional than dealing with the death of a loved one. There is little emotional energy to spare, so the better the plan that the deceased family member put in place, the less stress will be placed on surviving family and friends.

Belsky explains, “Being prepared for the unexpected is part literal and part psychological. On the literal side of things, you can make a best effort with your available resources to prepare for the unexpected. But resources are limited. There’s only so much you can do.”

Life Insurance

While the timing of death is usually unexpected, the fact that it happened at all is expected. Buying life insurance is something that can be done to prepare. The costs of a funeral and burial can be quite high. Eliminating the monetary worry with a life insurance policy can help on the psychological side to deal with what needs to be done.

A USA Today article from late last year, states that only 44% of U.S. households have an individual life insurance policy, which is the lowest coverage in 50 years. Perceived cost of a policy might be part of the reason for such low coverage. But in the long run, the cost now might be worth it.

By: Lisa C. Johnson, Esq.

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AfterSteps Launch

Check out the just-launched version of AfterSteps at

AfterSteps provides an interactive checklist that walks you through the creation of a secure end-of-life plan and then insures the transfer of this plan to your designated beneficiaries upon death.  The plan includes all of your estate planning documents, financial account information, and personal wishes.

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Estate Planning Considerations for Same Sex Couples

Rainbow colored celebrations across the country signaled the news last week that same-sex marriage was signed into law in the state of New York. But with all the revelry, there is also seriousness. Legal marriage brings about changes that require planning in many areas of life, including estate planning.

In all aspects of a plan, make sure to seek advice from an experienced estate planning attorney licensed to practice in your state. Plus there are a few things for same-sex couples to keep in mind.

State Law & Federal Law

Federal law does not recognize same-sex marriage. State laws vary widely and most states do not allow same-sex marriage. The National Conference of State Legislatures keeps an updated list on its website.

Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York and the District of Columbia issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. California does not currently allow same-sex marriages to be performed, but marriages that took place before Proposition 8 was passed remain valid. Rhode Island, New York, and Maryland recognize same-sex marriages from other states.

In An Emergency

If you’re taking a trip out of state, decide to move out of state, or even are at a medical facility near where you live, your spouse could have difficulty obtaining information about your medical condition and even having access to see you in an emergency.

The HIPAA Privacy Rule provides federal protections for personal health information. The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services website has information available for consumers. While it may not be required by law, having a written document signed by each spouse giving health care providers permission to release medical information to each of you could make things easier.

Once you’ve obtained medical information about your spouse, you need legal authority to speak on their behalf and have medical providers act accordingly. A living will says in writing how a person wants to be treated under certain medical conditions. Whether or not they would want to stay on life support and possibly if they would want to donate their organs upon their death. A health care proxy gives a person written permission to act on another’s behalf in terms of their health care and possibly making end of life decisions.

The Basics

A key element in an estate plan includes having a written will, which lets you determine in advance how your property will be distributed after your death. While not legal advice, the American Bar Association has some good estate planning information on its website.

If you die without a will, your state’s laws will apply by default and the outcome may not be what you would want. Sometimes the creation of a trust can go further in making sure that the provisions of your will are carried out as you envisioned.

Be aware that certain assets may fall outside of what is covered under a will. Life insurance policies, employee benefit plans, bank accounts, and stocks may have a designated beneficiary. Regardless of what is stated in the will, those assets should automatically pass to the beneficiary named in the documents when they were purchased or revised at a later time.

Similarly, real estate owned as joint tenants with rights of survivorship should automatically pass to the surviving joint tenant. Have you updated these documents to include your spouse? And even though this property may pass outside of the probate estate, it may still be part of the taxable estate.

By: Lisa C. Johnson, Esq.

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A First Step

A hallmark of a life well lived is knowing that we will be missed when we’re gone. But hopefully, memories of happy times will bring comfort and smiles to our loved ones. Sometimes a personal item can bring back memories in an instant. An antique plate used for that delicious coconut rum glazed cake each Thanksgiving. Or a colorful hand woven wool rug brought back from a vacation in New Mexico.

Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind

Making sure that our favorite things go to the people who will most appreciate them is a first step in the estate planning process. Over the years, it’s easy to collect all sorts of things. Not too surprisingly, much of what we own ends up out of sight in the basement, the attic, closets, or even rented storage space. After a while, many of us may forget exactly what we have. Yet, it’s vital to know precisely what you have in order to properly plan your estate.


When you start going through it all, you may decide to start throwing some of the junk away, having a yard sale or giving gifts to family, friends, or even charities while you’re still alive. But before making decisions about what is junk or who to give lifetime gifts, you might want to consider a few things. An article on Forbes’ website gives some helpful hints.

Seek Expert Advice: What you consider junk could actually be a highly coveted and valuable vintage item. Research what you can yourself. But if you’re not sure about something, contact an appraiser, an auction house or another trained professional. You don’t want to see a news story about someone making their fortune by selling a hidden treasure they found at your yard sale!

Think About Tax Implications: Depending upon the value of the gift, you might have to file a gift tax return. Do you want to give your niece the $20,000 ruby and diamond bracelet now? You could lend it to her to wear on special occasions and bequeath it to her in your will. Speak to a tax or legal professional about which options work best for you.

Starting The Conversation

While this is not everything you need to consider, it’s a start. Thinking about drafting a will and facing mortality is emotionally charged. We all handle it differently. Inviting a friend or family member over to help you start sorting through your belongings might be a way to begin talking about end-of-life plans. It’s also a way to connect with loved ones now, while you still have time to make new memories.

By: Lisa C. Johnson, Esq.

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Pet Trusts: When Family Includes A Pet

More and more, everyday family life includes a pet as a member. According to the 2011-2012 National Pet Owners Survey, the number of U.S. households that own a pet has increased to an all time high of 72.9 million.

Some people might even prefer their pets to their human family members. A Los Angeles Times article mentions a pending court case in Florida, that pits a son against his mother’s dogs in a battle over her estate. According to the article, Brett Carr, the only surviving child of heiress Gail Posner, claims that his mother was not in the right state of mind when she decided to leave a $3 million dollar trust fund to her three Chihuahuas and only left him income from a $1 million dollar fund.

Nothing But Trouble

The Posner case might remind some of us of the outrage that followed the revelation that real estate tycoon Leona Helmsley’s dog, Trouble, was given $12 million in her will. The amount was later reduced to $2 million, but controversy continued swirling around Trouble, who required $100,000 a year for a full-time security guard because of death threats. Recently, the New York Times reported that Trouble passed away last December.

Whatever your opinion of these two cases, they bring to light the idea of leaving money to take care of a beloved pet after the owner dies. This is not something that just happens with the super rich. The American Veterinary Medical Association website explains, that for many years, Americans tried under traditional trusts and estate law to care for their pet. However, they often encountered legal trouble. Since a pet is considered property, it could not legally be a trust beneficiary.

Pet Trusts

The AVMA report explains that in 1990, a provision in the Uniform Probate Code (UPC) adopted by the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws, made a change that allowed for the care of a pet who outlives its owner. Since then, most states have taken action and enacted laws allowing pet trusts.

Only Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, and West Virginia do not have some sort of similar legislation. This past April, the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals–Angell Animal Medical Center announced that Massachusetts joined with most other states and enacted a law that lets residents form legally enforceable trusts with the pet as the beneficiary. The law allows a trustee for the trust and a separate caretaker for the pet.

Current Trends

Including a pet in an estate plan is becoming more common. An article on states that in Florida, estate attorneys are contacting no-kill shelters to make arrangements. Many dogs and cats in shelters now have trust funds to pay for their care.

However, sometimes owners need to be even more detailed in their planning. For instance, if you want your pet to remain living in your house after you die, find someone in advance and name him or her in your estate plan. Be very clear. More careful planning now will lead to more peace of mind later. In addition, pet owners considering a trust for their animal should find an attorney who has handled these cases before.

By: Lisa C. Johnson, Esq.

Posted in Personal | 1 Comment