The US Government Wants you to Write a Social Media Will…

May 4, 2012

Filed under: Estate Planning,Living Trust,Will — Tags: , , , — Christopher J. Berry @ 2:04 pm

Yes, apparently our US Government wants each of us to put together a “Social Media Will.’  I’m an estate planning attorney in Michigan, and advise clients on how to plan for their assets, including digital assets.  So, when I stumbled upon a blog post by, I was intrigued.

Reading the blog post (How and Why You Should Write a Social Media Will), I kinda liked what I saw…

First, they outline how social media is not becoming a large part of everyone’s daily life and the issue of what happens with all that “stuff” if you were to pass away.  Lord knows, I have enough Facebook, Twitter, Email, Flickr, SmugMug accounts that it’s hard for me to keep track, let alone anyone else if something were to happen to me.

Next they outline some steps that should be taken to ensure that these digital assets are handled the way you would want if you were to pass away.  They recommend that just like a traditional last will and testament (or living trust!) handles your affairs for your physical belongings and financial assets, there should be a document that spells out how you want your online identity to be handled as well.

The idea of the social media will, is that like a traditional will, you’ll need to appoint someone you trust as a personal representative/trustee/executor.  That person will be responsible for closing your email addresses, social media profiles, and blogs after you are deceased.  Then that person should take the following steps:

The timing of this was ironic, since just yesterday I blogged about how to manage and find a Deceased Loved One’s Digital Assets.

So, what do you think?  Do you have a “Social Media Will?”

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Michigan Estate Planning Options

June 28, 2011

Filed under: Estate Planning,Life Insurance,Living Trust,Probate — Christopher J. Berry @ 1:15 am

As a Michigan estate planning lawyer, I like to stay up on top of what other people are saying about Michigan estate planning.  I stumbled upon a blog that discussed estate planning options in Michigan.

The estate planning blog discussed how each estate plan is unique for the person and family it is created for.  The blog then goes on to talk about three methods on how property is distributed to heirs.

Well, in actuallity, there are four ways that assets are passed out of a deceased person’s name.

The first way is through joint ownership.  Most married couples hold most of their property jointly, so that if one person passes away, the asset passes directly to the survivor.

The second way that assets passes out of a deceased person’s name would be beneficiary designation.  For example, you name a beneficiary of your life insurance policy.

The third way, and the way most of our clients pass their property is through a trust based estate plan.  Through a trust based estate plan a settlor can control the distirbution of their estate, plan for Federal Estate Taxes, and avoid probate.

Which brings us to the last way that an asset passes out of a decedant’s name and that would be through the Michigan probate process.

So, which is the right process for you or your family?

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The Problems of Joint Ownership

April 2, 2011

Filed under: Living Trust,Power of Attorney — Christopher J. Berry @ 8:07 pm

Joint ownership can create all kinds of issues for Michigan property.  Quite often in our Oakland County estate planning law office, we see clients who have added a son or daughter’s name to a piece of property and created joint ownership.  Often times, our recomendation is that you should never add someone, jointly, to any piece of property unless they are your spouse.

There is a recent NY Times article that address this entitled Making Room for Mom and Dad.  The article talks about when more than one generation lives together and how even in that situation, joint ownership could be a poor choice and create estate planning headaches.

Alternatives to joint ownership include Lady Bird Deeds, revocable living trusts, and powers of attorney.  The right type of alternative would depend on the situation, that is why it is important to speak with a Michigan estate planning attorney before making any decisions that could have negative consequences.

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A Paper Trail Your Heirs Can Follow

May 10, 2010

Filed under: Estate Planning,Living Trust,Power of Attorney,Will — Christopher J. Berry @ 9:50 pm

Noone enjoys thinking about dieing. That is one of the reasons that people continue to procrastinate on putting together their estate planning documents. Estate planning documents are the key to determine where your money will go when you pass away. Failure to prepare proper estate planning documents can lead to a a legal nightmare that causes undue stress and financial burden on your loved ones and heirs.

The New York Times has a great article entitled “Assemble a Paper Trail, and Make Sure Your Heirs Can Follow It.“, that talks about some important concepts in estate planning including reviewing wills, living trusts, and powers of attorney.

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Michigan Estate Planning Basics

January 25, 2010

Filed under: Do It Yourself Estate Planning Gone Wrong,Estate Planning,Health Care Directives,LegalZoom,Living Trust,Power of Attorney,Probate,Quicken Willmaker,Suze Orman,Will — Christopher J. Berry @ 4:02 pm

With Michigan Estate Planning, there are a few basic things that you need to know.

First, no matter what your net worth is, how much in assets you have, how much debt you have, you need an estate plan. In Michigan, once you turn 18 you are legally an adult. So, even if you’re a college age adult who lives at home with your parents, there is a certain level of estate planning that should be done. That is you need, what our office calls, a disability plan. A disability plan plans for your disability or incapacity.  We would put together a Patient Advocate Designation (which is the Michigan equivalent to a health care power of attorney), HIPAA Authorization, and a Financial Power of Attorney that most likely would name your parents as decision makers and agents.

Now that we’ve established that if you’re over the age of 18, you need the disability documents, the next step would be once you have assets (now matter how meager) or children, it is important to plan for your assets and children.  This is done through using Revocable Living Trusts and Last Wills and Testaments.  Whether you opt for a Living Trust based estate plan or a Will based estate plan will depend on your goals.  Remember a Last Will and Testament only gives instructions to the Michigan Probate court on how to administer your estate, it does not avoid probate.

Lastly, it is important to consult a Michigan estate planning attorney in preparing your estate plan.  Proper Michigan estate planning involves more than buying Nolo Willmaker software or reading the latest Suze Orman Trust Kit book.  It involves analyzing your goals and situation and using the estate planning tools we’ve discussed in the most effective and cost effective way.

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Michigan Probate Process- How It Works

November 12, 2009

Filed under: Estate Administration,Estate Planning,Living Trust,Probate,Will — Christopher J. Berry @ 8:05 pm

Our Bloomfield Hills Probate Lawyer office helps individuals and families with Michigan estate administration issues on a regular basis. One thing that I must remind clients of many times, is that the Michigan probate process is generally, not as quick and easy as you would like it to be.

If you do not have a properly funded trust based estate plan, there is a very good chance that your estate will end up under the jurisdiction of the Michigan probate courts. That may not be a bad thing, but you have to understand that if your estate is in the Oakland County Probate Court system, Macomb County Probate Court system, the Wayne County Probate court system, or any other Michigan Probate Court system, there will certain hurdles and hoops that will have to be jumped through.

In addition to jumping through certain administrative hoops, you have to understand that there are certain statutory requirements that each probate court requires. Even if the Michigan probate matter is an unsupervised, informal probate case. You still need to keep the probate estate open for a at least 5 months. You still have to publish a notice to creditors. You still have to complete the inventory in a timely matter (within 91 days of appointment).

Maybe it is a failure on my part to educate and explain that even with a Michigan probate lawyer handling the administration, I can’t wave a magic wand and bypass all the requirements of the Michigan probate court process.

Well, I take that back. I can, its called proper Michigan estate planning. Through proper planning (typically a living trust based Michigan estate plan that is properly funded) you can avoid the probate court completely. A Michigan Will does not avoid probate, no matter how pretty the backing or how long the document. A Michigan Last Will and Testament is your ticket to the probate system.

This isn’t to bash the Michigan probate system either. I love the people at the probate register and the staff. But, the public needed to understand that there are certain rules and formalities involved and most of the time those rules and formalities were put in place for a reason.

That said, by working with an experienced Michigan probate lawyer, we can navigate the process to minimize the work, stress, and excess costs to make the process as smooth as possible, but we have to follow the rules and jump through the hoops.

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Myths about Wills, Trusts and Estate Planning and What You Should Do

October 28, 2009

Filed under: Do It Yourself Estate Planning Gone Wrong,Estate Planning,LegalZoom,Living Trust,Quicken Willmaker,Suze Orman — Christopher J. Berry @ 8:12 pm

There are quite a few myths regarding Trusts, Wills and Estate Planning. A recent USA Today article address some of these myths. The article interviewed two colleagues from WealthCounsel, which is a national association of estate planning attorneys.

The myths that the article addresses include:

  1. Estate planing is only for the rich.
  2. If I die without a Will, everything will go to my spouse.
  3. I have a Will, my estate wont go through probate.
  4. After I create my Last Will and Testament or Living Trust, I’m set.
  5. I could be held responsible for a deceased parent’s debts.

You can read the article in its entirety here: 5 Myths about wills, and what you should do.

While overall, the article is well written, I do have one large point of contention.  The article suggest that some of the do-it-yourself options are viable, such as Legalzoom, Suze Orman Trust Maker, or Quicken Willmaker.  Read some of my past posts on why these options can be even worse than having no estate plan at all.

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Women and Estate Planning: Part 2

January 22, 2013

Filed under: Estate Administration,Estate Planning,Estate Taxes and Lifetime Gifts,Financial Planning,Living Trust,Living Will,Long Term Care — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , — Christopher J. Berry @ 9:14 pm

Estate planning often has a more dramatic effect on women due elongated life expectancy and the tendency to marry older spouses. As a result, they are three times more likely to be widowed at 65, than men. Estate planning is an imperative component in retirement planning, and with a greater probability of surviving their spouses, women often have the final word about how much wealth goes to family, charity or the taxman.

(Read more: Women and Estate Planning: Part 1)

5. Spouses Get Special Tax Breaks
Under the “unlimited marital deduction” assets inherited or received as gifts from a spouse are not taxed. Starting in 2011, portability allows a surviving spouse to add any unused estate tax exclusion of the recently deceased spouse to her own exclusion. A widow can pass on up to $10.24 million, untaxed, through either lifetime gifts or her will. If your spouse is not a U.S. citizen, the marital deduction is more limited and portability does not apply.

6. Tax Planning For Widows Is More Difficult
The primary goal, for most married couples, is to leave each other provided for financially. Upon death of the first spouse, tax saving strategies are more imperative considering the unlimited marital deduction no longer applies. However, there are a number of simple ways to save taxes while achieving other goals, like subsidizing family members who are less fortunate, educating children and grandchildren and preserving retirement assets.

(Read more: Estate Tax On the Rise, Don’t Panic, Plan)

7. Do Not Own Your Insurance
Because proceeds could be subject to estate tax, you will likely give away money to the government if you die owning a policy on your life. One way to avoid that outcome is to designate the family member who will receive the proceeds as the owner of the policy. Another is to establish an irrevocable life insurance trust. Traditionally, the ILIT buys the policy and, when you die, holds the proceeds for whomever you have named as beneficiaries.

8. Beneficiary Forms Are Key
Retirement accounts are distributed according to beneficiary designation forms filed with the bank or financial institution holding your account. You can readily name any beneficiaries you desire with an IRA, including friends, family members, a charity or a trust. For a 401(k) or other workforce plan, you must acquire or spouse’s written consent to leave it to anyone else. You must filed an amended form to change a beneficiary, if you get divorced for example.

(Read more: 8 Life Stages of Estate Planning: Part 1)

9. Cash Is King
Couples who commingle money must ensure there is sufficient funds to cover immediate expenses if one of them suddenly dies. Said funds can be held in each of your separate accounts or in a joint individual account right away.

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Mr. Witzke practices in the areas of estate and gift tax planning, financial planning, retirement planning, LGBT civil rights, charitable giving, elder law, and small business planning. He focuses on helping clients grow, protect, and transfer wealth efficiently. Mr. Witzke is a past president and board member of the Financial Planning Association of Michigan, a member of the board of directors for Leadership Oakland, and a member of the planned giving advisory committees of Wayne State University and the Community House in Birmingham. Follow Mr. Witzke on Twitter @gr8estatelawyer.

Why Your Clients Should Be Concerned With the Federal “Death Tax”

December 3, 2012

Filed under: Business Planning,Estate Taxes and Lifetime Gifts,Federal Estate Tax,Living Trust — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , — Christopher J. Berry @ 3:43 pm


Marc H. Wander is a partner of the Bloomfield Hills law firm of Witzke, Berry, Carter &Wander, PLLC. Marc has been licensed to practice law in Michigan since 1992. Marc’s practice is devoted to estate planning and business succession planning.  Marc is a member of the Probate and Estate Planning Section of the State Bar of Michigan and is a prior Chairperson of the Oakland County Bar Association Tax Committee. He is a frequent continuing education speaker to insurance agents, financial advisors, CPA’s and financial industry organizations. He has also been heard on WJR Radio. Follow Marc on Twitter @MarcWander

8 Life Stages of Estate Planning: Part 2

November 28, 2012

Filed under: Asset Protection,Estate Planning,Living Trust,Living Will — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — Christopher J. Berry @ 2:26 pm

The joys of parenting

If you have children, update your will to nominate a guardian to step in if you and your spouse pass away. Include provisions in your will or a separate revocable trust so that your child doesn’t inherit everything at the age of 18.

A revocable trust allows you to appoint a trustee to handle any money your child inherits. The trustee can use it to support your child as the child grows up, and you can specify at what age your child can receive the money, along with any reasons your child should get it before that age, such as starting a business or buying a house. You can also specify that the trustee can withhold money if your child has a gambling problem, is in the midst of a divorce, or there’s another situation that makes it inappropriate to inherit.

You’ll also need a separate guardianship nomination that nominates a guardian to care for your child if both parents are incapacitated. That’s helpful in simpler situations as well, such as when both parents take a vacation and a child needs emergency medical treatment.

Each time you have another child, be sure your estate planning documents address all of your children, and don’t forget to increase your life insurance.

“Sing it, Tammy Wynette: D-I-V-O-R-C-E

If you’re separating or divorcing, it’s unlikely that you want your spouse to have the authority to make decisions on your behalf and access your medical and financial information. Revoke those documents, including beneficiary designations, or sign new ones. A divorce decree doesn’t magically change those things.

If you remarry, revise your will and trust documents to reflect the proper beneficiaries. Most people want to share with their new spouse but also want to provide for their separate children at their death. Determine which assets you want to leave to your spouse and which to leave to your children.

The middle ages

As you approach your 40s and 50s, consider purchasing long-term care insurance, which will cover the cost of long-term care or a nursing home.

The golden years

Review your life insurance to determine whether you can reduce it if your children are grown. Also, review designations on your durable power of attorney, health care proxy, and HIPAA release to ensure the people you’ve named are still in your life and willing and able to serve in that role. At this stage, it is common for people to start planning their funeral to make sure that’s in order.

Contact Michigan Estate Planning Lawyer Christopher Berry to ensure your estate plan is secure and in place.

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Attorney Christopher J. Berry is a Metro Detroit estate planning and elder law lawyer who helps families, seniors, veterans and business owners with their important legal needs. Oakland County estate planning lawyer, Christopher Berry is a partner in the Bloomfield Hills law firm of Witzke Berry PLLC. Mr. Berry practices in the areas ofestate planning, business, probate, veterans benefits & Medicaid planning. Follow Christopher on Twitter@chrisberryesq.


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