Stephen Covey: Three Lessons in Estate Planning From an Estate Planning Attorney

July 16, 2012

Filed under: Estate Planning,Power of Attorney,Probate — Tags: , , — Christopher J. Berry @ 10:14 pm

Stephen Covey, famous author of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, has died at age 79 today.  He is survived by his wife, Sandra, nine children, 52 grandchildren and great-grandfather of two, according to  He passed away from injuries sustained from a bicycle injury.

There are some important lessons that we can learn from Stephen Covey as it applies to estate planning, both from his personal situations as well from his teachings.

I read the 7 Habits of Highly Successful People many years ago and one of my big take aways was his concept of quadrants and how people spend time putting out fires, sharpening the saw, etc.  Quite often taking action on your own personal estate plan may not be one of those crisis’ that call for your immediate attention.  Too often the reason clients start thinking about estate planning is that they are going on a vacation, they’ve had a death in their family, or they’ve received a medical diagnosis.

Estate Planning is one of those things that is best done when not in crisis mode.  Linking it back to Stephen Covey, if estate planning is undertaken during a crisis situation there will be a rushed aspect to it where you might not be able to fully spend the time thinking about who’s going to serve certain roles, such as trustee, successor trustee, power of attorney, patient advocate designation, etc.

But if estate planning is done in quadrant two, so to speak, then the proper estate planning goals can be fleshed out, discussed, mulled over.

Which brings me to lesson one:

Lesson One of Estate Planning based on Stephen Covey: Plan ahead with your estate planning, think quadrant two.

The next important take away from Stephen Covey’s situation is his family situation and how I would think about his planning as a Michigan estate planning lawyer helping a client with Stephen Covey’s family make up of a wife, nine children and his grandchildren.

If Stephen Covey was in my office we’d be looking at a plan that would provide for his spouse while she was still alive, as well as providing for the children and grandchildren if his spouse were to pass away.  Most likely we would look at using a seperate trust based estate plan with proper disability documents.  Most likely, Stephen Covey would have a taxable estate, where we may have to do advanced planning integrating irrevocable trusts.  Of course, probate avoidance would be a key part of his plan.

Also, if Stephen Covey had a large amount in his retirement account we may look at setting up retirement plan trusts to manage those retirement accounts for the benefit of his kids and grand-kids, where due to the minimum required distributions (MRD’s) for younger individuals, the accounts may grow with interest larger than the MRDs.

Which brings me to lesson two:

Lesson Two of Estate Planning based on Stephen Covey: Estate Planning may seem simple, but every situation is different.

The last lesson from Stephen Covey’s situation stems from how he passed away.  Stephen Covey ultimately passed away from a freak biking accident.  It wasn’t planned, didn’t fit into their life, they didn’t have it on the calendar.  Lesson three is simple and I share it with my clients all the time.

Lesson Three on Estate Planning from Stepehen Covey: Life Throws Curveballs, Plan Accordingly.

Often current events make certain topics top of mind, if you have questions about estate planning for your family, please call our Oakland County Estate Planning law firm at (248) 481-4000.




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Seven Major Errors in Estate Planning

May 8, 2012

Filed under: Do It Yourself Estate Planning Gone Wrong,Estate Planning — Tags: , , , , , , — Christopher J. Berry @ 1:44 am

As a Michigan estate planning and elder care attorney, I try to stay on top of news articles referencing estate planning.  Some are good, some are bad. Forbes has a pretty good article on the Seven Major Errors in Estate Planning.  The author starts out commenting on how “It never fails to amaze me that so many otherwise savvy individuals, many of whom have there financial lives otherwise buttoned-up use poor judgment (or no judgment) when it comes to their estate planning.”  I’d have to agree, I’ve seen many wealthy individuals who have most of their ducks in a row, but little to no estate planning.  Or estate planning that was put together by an estate planning attorney, but wholly inappropriate for their situation.

The author goes on to list seven different areas where people make state planning mistakes.

Not Having a Plan

Many people come into our office with no estate plan at all.  Often people will ask when is a good time to initially think about estate planning, and my answer is when they have things or people they want to protect.  For example, with the birth of a child you would want to put together an estate plan that provides for your child in trust, as well as puts guardianship provisions so that your child does not go into a foster home.

Online or DIY Rather than Utilizing a Professional

There has been a noticeable uptick in people using online legal preparation software such as Legalzoom or Suze Orman.  Unfortunately, relying on these web-based DIY options can be a recipe for disaster.  Just look at some of my previous blog posts on the concerns with creating your own last will and testament.

Failure to Review Beneficiary Designation and Titling of Assets

Too often people will buy a living trust based estate plan from an estate planning attorney, but they will not fund it properly or fail to keep up with their funding.  I say “buy” a trust based estate plan, because all they’ve done is bought a set of documents.  It very well might not be worth the paper it was drafted on if it’s not funded properly.  That’s the difference between a product based estate planning attorney versus a counseling based estate planning.  If you’re going to go through the estate planning process, make sure you fund your trust properly.  That’s why our office will do a funding audit, to make sure that your revocable living trust is funded properly.

The author lists the rest of the mistakes here: Seven Major Errors in Estate Planning.

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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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Finding a Deceased Loved One’s Digital Assets

May 3, 2012

Filed under: Estate Administration,Estate Planning — Tags: , , , — Christopher J. Berry @ 2:41 pm

Society with the increased used of the internet and the idea of “going paperless” is relying less and less on the real world and hard copies and putting more trust into the digital, virtual world or even the cloud.  When a loved one passes away and you are a trustee or personal representative trying to gather assets, this can present some interesting problems and quirks.  As Michigan estate planning and probate lawyers, I wanted to share some tips with you.

Know What to Find

Digital assets can include things like internet accounts, data, contractual and ineffectual property in the digital world.  You should be looking for things like email accounts, bank statements, investment accounts, credit cards, bill paying accounts, Facebook, Twitter, online gaming, online gambling, e-books, and retail.  Additionally, check for cloud based documents such as Dropbox, Google,, or SugarSync.

Get Your Google On

Do a Google search for the loved one’s name.  This may help reveal different accounts, such as LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook or other social networking or internet sites.  It’s amazing what you can find sometimes from a simple Google search.

Get Access to An E-Mail Account Quickly

Most people keep a spreadsheet on their computer of passwords or pass codes.  See if you can find a list stored on their computer.  If you can’t, take a stab at guessing some passwords, worse case, bring in an IT professional.

Get Access to E-Mail The Slow Way

If you are unable to access your loved one’s e-mail account, the slower option is to access it by contracting the e-mail provider.  Generally, sending a scanned copy of the death certificate along with letters of authority to the e-mail host will grant access to the account.

Do Not Close the E-Mail Account Immediately

Similar to keeping the “snail” mail coming to check on bills and accounts, it is important not to immediately shut down your loved one’s e-mail address.  This can be an easy way to find out about any bills, accounts, etc that your loved one had as the monthly emails come in to the account.

Close Your Loved One’s Other Accounts

It is important to close out the other accounts of your loved one, including Netflix, Pandora, iTunes, and especially anything that has a monthly fee associated with it.  However, be careful with certain digital assets because you need to know the value.  For example, some World of Warcraft accounts could be worth thousands of dollars and should consider being inventoried and then possibly sold.

Put Your Loved One’s Digital House in Order

Hopefully your loved one planned properly for their digital assets, for example a master document with all the relevant accounts and passwords could be stored with one’s estate planning documents.  This must be kept safe just like any other assets.

Special thanks to ICLE and Attorney Michele C. Marquardt.


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Sherman Hemsley still not buried 3 months after death; bizarre legal dispute endures

October 30, 2012

Filed under: Estate Planning,Living Will — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , — Christopher J. Berry @ 2:18 am

Now three months after Sherman Hemsley, star of the CBS series “The Jeffersons” died in his El Paso home, yet he hasn’t been laid to rest as the beneficiaries of his will, and even his cause of death, have been called into question.

Confirmed by a worker at the Eastside location of the San Jose Funeral Home in El Paso, Texas, Hemsley is still at the home where they are waiting for a court order telling them what to do with his body.

It was first revealed in August that Hemsley’s body had not been buried due to a legal dispute between his former manager and self-proclaimed business partner and live-in best friend Flora Enchinton– who was named as the sole beneficiary in his will– and a Philadelphia man, Richard Thorton, who claims to be the actor’s brother. Thorton filed a civil lawsuit disputing the validity of the will, signed by Hemsley one month prior to his death.

On September 24, Probate Court judge Patricia Chew delayed the trial over the actor’s estates and remains to October 31, and ordered the man who claims to be the brother to undergo a DNA test. Thorton’s nephew Robert Thorton took the stand in support of his Uncle’s allegation, and question the authenticity of the signature, which suspiciously left everything to Enchinton.

All the while, a third person has since come forward amid the battle vowing to intervene on the issue prior to the October 31st trial date. Reverend Michael George Wells– a minister at Arch Street United Methodist Church claims to be a cousin on Hemley’s mother’s side– told the El Paso Times that he doesn’t believe Enchinton was close to Sherman and that the Thortons were not related to the late actor.

Wells told FOX411 that he would like to intervene before October 31, but doesn’t have the $10,000 he says he would need to join the legal fray. Wells wants the media to know that Sherman Hemsley’s body has been in the refrigerator for an unnecessary amount of time and it’s uncalled for.

While he was initially said to have died of natural causes, it later came out that he had cancer. Wells is calling for an investigation, claiming that no doctors or hospitals ever mentioned cancer. He also is weary of the claim that the actor’s estate is worth just $50,000, and believes its value is beyond the reported amount. At the time time of his death no foul play was suspected, and no autopsy was planned, although Wells insisted that if he had the financial means he would have one performed to get the truth.

A postmortem report obtained by TMZ listed the primary cause of death is listed as “superior vena cava syndrome” — a complication resulting from a mass on Sherman’s lung, and noted that the star had been advised to undergo chemotherapy and radiation therapy before he succumbed to the illness.

Attorneys for Enchinton and Thornton did not respond to a request for comment, and Thornton declined to comment. Civil litigator Anahita Sedaghatfar said she is not surprised that something like this, particularly with an association to Hollywood, could happen.

Contact attorney Marc Wander and ensure your living will is in place, before it ever comes to this.

Read more:

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

Next-of-Kin Laws and Digital Assets

October 9, 2012

Filed under: Asset Protection,Estate Planning,Estate Recovery — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — Christopher J. Berry @ 12:29 am

Terms and agreements for each online service vary regarding just what happens to a digital account after death. Facebook, for example, cannot be shut down completely without official documentation, such as a death certificate. Certain email services deny access to anyone without a password, however, Hotmail and Gmail have recently defined a next-of-kin process, which enables confirmed family members to access the deceased’s contact lists and close the accounts.

There are currently five states that either have or are enacting laws that will protect your digital legacy. Nebraska is the latest state to propose legislation to allow next-of-kin to control digital accounts after a user has perished. According to Adele McAlear, the creator of, the proposed bill is modeled after Oklahoma’s digital property management after death law, which passed in 2010.

Idaho passed a similar law in 2011, while Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Indiana have older legislation covering email and digital files. Sherry Walters-Walker, an estate settlement services manager at Northern Trust hopes for uniformity down the line, and that one day there will be laws that allow executors access to all accounts.

Laws are different for each service and state, contact Michael P. Witzke and discover Michigan’s next-of-kin laws regarding digital assets.

Mr. Witzke practices in the areas of estate and gift tax planning, financial planning, retirement planning, 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.

Estate Tax Law and Expirations On the Horizon

October 2, 2012

Filed under: Estate Planning,Federal Estate Tax — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , — Christopher J. Berry @ 10:30 pm

Among the plethora of Bush era tax cut and sequester debates, Congress must also address the expiration of the current estate tax law before the year’s end. As it stands, the federal estate tax exemption is set at $5.12 million and estates valued over this amount will be taxed at 35 percent. If no action is taken by Congress, the exemption will revert to $1 million and the estate tax rate will be 55 percent in 2013. It is estimated that 52,500 estates will be affected in the event Congress fails to act.

Business and farm lobbyists are fighting to rein in the estate tax, with many hoping to have the tax eliminated. In a full-force effort, they are trying to persuade Congress that resources needed for investment are being drained due to the constant changes in the estate tax rate, in recent years.

The GOP agrees, on the basis that decreasing the exemption and raising taxes on job creators in this economy rivals common sense. On the flipside, many Democrats repeatedly assert that in order to cut the deficit, the estate tax should return to the 2009 levels of a 45 percent rate for estates with a $3.5 million exemption.

Long-term and estate planning is subject to dramatic fluctuation if the estate tax plan expires without action. Currently, the federal unused spousal exclusion is portable, meaning, if one spouse dies and does not use all of the exclusion, the surviving spouse can combine the remaining amount with his or her exclusion. Also at risk of expiration, is the portability of the federal spousal exclusion in the event that the estate tax sunsets.

Witzke, Berry, Carter & Wander PLLC is keeping a close eye on the ongoing debates and how any estate tax decisions may affect you and your clients.

Mr. Witzke practices in the areas of estate and gift tax planning, financial planning, retirement planning, 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.


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