New Lawsuit vs. LegalZoom

April 20, 2011

Filed under: LegalZoom,Suze Orman,Will — Christopher J. Berry @ 5:31 pm

There is a new lawsuit against Legalzoom, alleging all the usual suspects of claims how they are an unauthorized practice of law, etc. Something to keep in mind if you’re a do-it-yourselfer with your estate planning.

Here’s the link:

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The Extra Hoops Gay and Lesbian Parents Must Jump Through

March 24, 2011

Filed under: Estate Planning,Holistic Estate Planning,Planning for Parents with Minor Children,Power of Attorney,Will — Christopher J. Berry @ 7:39 pm

There was an interesting article in the New York Times discussing the issues that a lesbian couple in Beverly Hills, Michigan had in trying to create a family.  As the article indicates, Michigan does not allow same-sex couples to perform second parent adoptions, which would allow one partner to adopt the other’s biological or adopted children.  However, Michigan recognizes second-parent adoptions performed elsewhere.

This inability, in Michigan, to adopt, is just one of many legal and financial hoops that same-sex couples must jump through.

The article lays out some of the chief issues same-sex couples must address and many of it through legal documentation.  One of the first key documents is a parental authority document establishing the ability of both parents to have legal authority to act as parents.

Additionally, last wills and testaments must be updated to ensure there is guardianship and co-parenting rights if one of the parents were to pass away.  It’s important to establish the legal authority before any blood relatives.

Often times it is important to have revocable living trusts in place to manage any property if one of the parents were to pass away.

Obviously, the couple also needs incapacity documents establishing each other as patient advocates and to receive HIPAA authorizations so that each can receive medical information on the other.

To read more on the recommendations, read the NYTimes article here.

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Why do I Need to go to probate if we have a Will?

October 8, 2010

Filed under: Estate Planning,Will — Christopher J. Berry @ 9:21 pm

Many times we run into the question of “why do we have to go to probate in Michigan, if my mother or father had a last will and testament? Doesn’t a will avoid probate in Michigan?” The answer is no, a last will and testament is your ticket to the probate courts.

A big myth is that if you have a will, it avoids probate. In reality, typically a will based estate plan is your ticket to the probate court. The will gives instructions to the probate court on how to administer an estate, versus dying intestate (without a will).

There are four main ways assets transfer out of a decedent’s name at death. First, joint ownership, second beneficiary designations, third through trust, and fourth probate. When an asset lands in probate there is two options. Either testate, meaning with a will, or intestate, meaning without a will.

Remember, a will based estate plan does not avoid probate, it is your ticket to the probate courts. A will gives instructions to the probate court on how to administer your estate.

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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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Bloomfield Hills Estate Planning Attorney Prioritizes Details in Estate Planning

September 29, 2009

Filed under: Estate Planning,Life Insurance,Living Trust,Probate,Retirement Accounts,Will — Christopher J. Berry @ 8:36 pm

With the baby boomers aging, the largest amount of wealth in history is passing from one generation to the next. Unfortunately, people are procrastinating on their estate planning until it’s too late.

Over at the, they have an interesting article that discusses how to prioritize the details in estate planning which you can read here:  “Guest column: Tim Cisler Prioritize details in estate planning.”

From the point of view of a Michigan estate planning attorney, there are a couple key points that I would like to reinforce from the article.

First, don’t underestimate the value of your assets.  Sure the economy is down, that said, your estate could include your residence, your retirement accounts, your savings, and possibly your life insurance.  Add all those pieces up and you may be surprised at the value.  Regardless of the size, you most likely would want to protect those assets from needless expenses, for example the expense of opening a Michigan probate.

The next key point is to keep your beneficiaries designations updated on your assets, including life insurance, retirement accounts, deeds to property.  Just because it made sense at one point to name a family member the beneficiary of the IRA, doesn’t mean now or in the future it would make more sense to name the living trust the beneficiary.

Lastly, know the difference between a probate estate and a trust.  People think that just because they have a Michigan Will, they will avoid the Michigan probate system.  Not true, a Michigan Last Will and Testament is your ticket to the Michigan probate system.  If you want to avoid a Michigan Probate, then a living trust would be a better option.

Christopher J. Berry, Esq., A Bloomfield Hills Wills and Living Trust Attorney, is a Partner with The Law Offices of Witzke Berry PLLC, which practices in the areas of Bloomfield Hills  Estate Planning, Bloomfield Hills Medicaid Planning, and Bloomfield Hills Probate Litigation, serving Metro-Detroit and Oakland County, Macomb County, and Wayne County.  We can be reached at 248-971-1700.

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8 Life Stages of Estate Planning: Part 1

November 28, 2012

Filed under: Asset Protection,Estate Planning,Life Insurance,Will — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , — Christopher J. Berry @ 2:15 pm

Your estate plan should account for the many stages of life that you experience. Below is a rundown of the estate-planning tools you should have if you’re just beginning your life’s journey, halfway through, or approaching the homestretch.

Ch. 1: Planning for life

  • 8 life stages for planning
  • The basics of estate planning
  • Estate-planning Q&A
  • Should you have a will?

(Why You Need to Put Your Living Together Agreement in Writing)

Young, single and carefree

Parents make financial decisions for children by law, until they reach 18, and that legal right is vanquished. Consider the worse, if something happened to you, it is in your best interest for your parents to have access and control to your health care and financial decisions. Access to your medical providers, and more importantly, a say in your health care decisions protects you in the event of the unforeseen.

(A Risky Lifeline for the Elderly Is Costing Some Their Homes)

If you’re over 18 and unmarried, execute four documents to ensure  your loved ones can carry out your wishes:

1. A general durable power of attorney enables you to designate who will control your finances if you become incapacitated, whether it’s your parents or another loved one.
2. A health care proxy allows you to designate who will make medical decisions on your behalf in the same situation.
3. A living will lets you lay out your wishes regarding life-sustaining medical treatment.

Estate planning life stages

  1. Young and single.
  2. Single, but committed.
  3. Engaged.
  4. Just married.
  5. Parents.
  6. Divorced.
  7. The middle years.
  8. The golden years.

(Sandbagging In M&A Deals: Silence May Not Be Golden)

4. Finally, a Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, release enables your designated agent to discuss your medical condition without violating patient privacy laws. Without those documents, loved ones may have to resort to seeking guardianship over you in court at a time when it is the last thing in the world that they want to be doing.

Single, but committed

A will or trust can ensure your life partner inherits your possessions if you’re in a long-term relationship but unmarried. Otherwise, state law deems that they go to your closest relatives.

(The Global Logic of Strategic Alliances)

We’re engaged!

A prenuptial agreement isn’t only for people who have a lot of money. It’s essential for everybody. A lot of people divorce because they’ve never had conversations about money. A prenuptial agreement forces people to engage in this financial conversation.

Just married

Edit your durable power of attorney, health care proxy and HIPAA release if you want to eliminate any question that your spouse should control your financial and medical decisions if you become incapacitated. Think of Terri Schiavo, referring to the woman whose parents and husband battled publicly for seven years over the right to make health care decisions on her behalf after she became incapacitated. She didn’t have a health care proxy.

(Lesbian Couples’ Marriage Rights)

If you do not have a revised durable power of attorney, your spouse also can’t administer property solely in your name or property you hold jointly with your spouse. Also, indicate the person you’d like to make financial and medical decisions on your behalf in the event an accident incapacitates you and your spouse.

If you don’t already have one, this is also the time for a will or trust. In a lot of states, if you die without a will and have a spouse but no children, your spouse will inherit some of what you own, but your parents will also inherit. Avoid the risk of a fight between your spouse and parents over who should inherit, and have a will or trust definitively state who should receive your assets. Also, if you own a home, purchase life insurance that will pay off your mortgage if one spouse dies.

(The Paperwork Mountain at Veterans Affairs)

Finally, change your beneficiary designations in terms of health insurance and investment plans so they pass to your spouse. A lot of people think when they get married, those things change on their own, but that’s not the case. Visit your human resources department and ask which documents include a beneficiary. Health savings accounts and flexible spending accounts sometimes have a beneficiary, as do bank accounts payable on death.

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.

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:

  • Review the privacy policies and the terms and conditions of each website where you have a presence.
  • State how you would like your profiles to be handled. You may want to completely cancel your profile or keep it up for friends and family to visit. Some sites allow users to create a memorial profile where other users can still see your profile but can’t post anything new.
  • Give the social media executor a document that lists all the websites where you have a profile, along with your usernames and passwords.
  • Stipulate in your will that the online executor should have a copy of your death certificate. The online executor may need this as proof in order for websites to take any actions on your behalf.

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?”

Helping Your Clients Protect Their Family Fortunes… Michigan?

August 9, 2011

Filed under: Asset Protection,Elder Law,Medicaid Planning,Will — Christopher J. Berry @ 11:25 pm

I just saw a blog post entitled “Helping Your Clients Protect Their Family Fortunes,” which I thought was a bit odd and out of place.  Especially on days like this when the stock market and people’s retirement assets are tanking.  Our firm heritage is that we started out as an estate planning firm in Michigan, and we still are.  However, more and more, every day, I consider my practice, at least, more geared towards every day Michiganders, who don’t have a “family fortune,” but instead worked hard and saved a nest egg that has taken a hit with the plummeting economy.

I spend my day as a Michigan elder law attorney, helping clients with modest assets save as much as they can from taxes, probate, and long-term care costs.  Sure, we have the skill set to plan around the Federal Estate Taxes ($5million dollar exemption this year and with portability $10 million, do you have that much?) and do complicated, high end estate planning utilizing GRITs, GRATs, ILITS, IDGT’s, and the rest of the alphabet soup.  But, I find that my day is spent helping working class Michigan families with questions such as “how do we pay for assisted living for mom?” or “dad’s going into the nursing home, how to we make sure that mom can continue to pay the bills?”

Very different than “Helping Your Clients Protect Their Family Fortunes.”  I’d say a good tag line for much of the work I am helping Michigan families with is “Helping Your Clients Save Their House and Savings.”


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