By Dan England
As Tim Brynteson saw his father-in-law, Herrick Garnsey, struggle with his estate, he began to crave going back into law.
Brynteson was the general manager of the historic Garnsey & Wheeler Ford of Greeley, after starting his life in tax law working for the Internal Revenue Service. Brynteson enjoyed the car business, but it was almost a family obligation, given that the dealership had a bloodline since 1922, when Bill Garnsey, Jr., opened it in downtown Greeley. His son, Bill the III, went into partnership in 1947 with John Wheeler, and Herrick joined his father in 1954. Brynteson became general manager in 1996, nearly 20 years after Wheeler sold his portion.
There wasn’t much family drama associated with the estate planning, but it was dif cult nonetheless, as Garnsey obviously had a big business and legacy to leave behind, even after he sold it in 2007. Brynteson missed being an attorney, and he saw an opportunity. “Living it and experiencing it in real life made me realize how important it is [for estate planning] to be done right,” Brynteson says.
Now he works as a partner with Otis & Bedingfield in Greeley and Loveland, and half of what he does is help others go through the same process of figuring out not only what they want to leave behind but how they leave it. There’s a lot to it, perhaps more than you think, Brynteson says, and 2020 was a good reminder of the importance of doing it sooner rather than later. In fact, he and others practicing estate planning are as busy as they’ve ever been because of fears from COVID-19.
“Oh yeah, it’s been quite a boom,” Brynteson says. “This certainly does bring to the forefront that we don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Stay out of court
It can be pleasant, even fun, to be an estate attorney, especially if you’re Charles Tucker, who’s operated as an attorney for nearly 20 years and specializes in estate planning in his Fort Collins of ce. He avoids litigation and other messy squabbles over money: His goal, he says, is to keep his clients from having to go to court.
“I really enjoy my clients,” he says. “People come to you as an estate planner because it’s their idea. My clients are generally happy to be in my of ce. That’s not true in other areas.”
It’s much easier, after all, when estates are worked out ahead of time. It leaves any doubt out of the minds of, say, the children, and it’s the doubt that can lead to lawsuits.
“It occurs quite a lot that when a parent has passed on, the children’s personalities are a bit different when they are presented with a pot of money,” Tucker says. “Sometimes the greed comes out in the children that maybe wasn’t there while Mom and Dad were alive.”
Parents will underestimate that greed or overestimate how well their kids can split up the assets. A red ag that Tucker raises when he hears “They will work it out.”
“Parents will often say that,” Tucker says and laughs. “That’s when I ask a few more questions just to see how far that goes.”
That’s especially true of blended families, which are common in today’s world, Brynteson says. It’s not a disaster if there is no will or written document spelling out who gets
what. It’s widely believed that the state gets everything in those cases, but that’s not true. Assets still go to family members according to state law. But in blended families, the law is much less clear as to who is considered family and who isn’t.
“It’s even more critical then to spell things out,” Brynteson says. “It’s just really hard to ask what Mom and Dad would have wanted, and you’re already going through the trauma of losing one or both. It’s just really hard to guess that.”
People generally don’t put estate planning on a list of errands to do along with washing the car and getting groceries: There’s usually a reason for it, such as a major life event, even when it’s something that everyone faces, such as the threat of COVID.
“One typical trigger is getting married, or having a child, or a change, such as a divorce or grandchildren,” Tucker says. “Sometimes they are there because they just wished their parent had done some planning or done it differently.”
Cameron N. Banninga, an estate attorney with Wick and Trautwein in Fort Collins and Windsor, acknowledges he has a vested interest in saying this, but he believes there’s no amount too small (or too big) to have some sort of plan.
“I do think it makes sense to have these conversations, and it’s something you should revisit with every major change in your life,” Banninga says. “There’s no ceiling and no floor for estate planning.”
There’s also no age where it makes sense to start planning. Banninga doesn’t assign any number to it; it’s more of a place in life.
“There’s a point where people start thinking signi cantly more about how to transfer assets,” he says, “and that usually comes with the more children and grandchildren they have, or the more assets they have. The reality is, once people have assets, and they know where or to whom they want them to go, it’s a good time to memorialize that.”
Illnesses can trigger them as well, either from the person planning their own estate or helping their dying parents get it done.
“There have been times when I’ve been at the hospital working it out,” Tucker says, “but that doesn’t happen real often.”
Last minute hospital visits aren’t fun, and they’re even less fun when a patient can’t respond. That’s why estate planning involves far more than what happens after you die, Brynteson says.
“You will only die once,” he says. “But it’s far more likely you will need agents appointed to make decisions on your behalf several times in your life.”
Those agents are spelled out in Power of Attorney documents, and Brynteson believes they are just as important as a will.
“Sometimes, by the time they really need an agent, the only way is to go to court and get appointed, and that can be tough when more than one person wants to do it,” he says.
Powers of attorney help avoid nasty con icts over emotional decisions such as ending life support, and they can be as detailed as you want, Brynteson says. Someone can handle the nances, and another person can handle the end-of-life decisions, and someone could even know what to do with pets.
“You can specify what person you want to make any decision,” he says.
When there’s a will, there’s other ways
There are cheap alternatives to wills. Hand-written notes can work, as long as they are witnessed and signed by two people, and there are many online forms, such as those offered on eforms.com or the romantically titled doyourownwill.com. Some of them are free, and they may be more legit than you think.
“I always tell people that if everything goes to plan and your family is easy and conventional, a lot of times online documents can work ne,” Brynteson says. “They anticipate the most predictable, simple scenarios, but if that’s what you have, and if you don’t disagree, everything is usually fine.”
Brynteson, however, because he’s an attorney, always has some healthy skepticism about what everyone actually agrees on.
“We are jaded as attorneys because we see so many circumstances where speci c things weren’t written down, or they were written down with an online form,” he says.
There are also many other ways to leave family, friends or, yes, your cat, your stuff, Banninga says, besides a formal will. When you title someone as a joint tenant of an asset, all that person has to do is provide your death certi cate, and it’s now their property. That’s easy, but there are some tax disadvantages to that, Banninga says.
There’s also a bank account you can set up with a so-called “pay on delivery” designation that pays it to whoever you would like upon your death. You can set up one account to pay, say, to the humane society on your cat’s behalf, and another for your daughter. And sometimes some of your assets already have designated inheritors, such as those in mutual funds with a large nancial company, or perhaps your 401K or life insurance policy.
You have a say over who gets what, of course, but you can’t write your spouse out of your will, so
it’s time to drop that threat when you’re ghting over what to watch on Net ix. Just how much he or she receives depends on how long you’re married. The spouse is the only one with that level of protection.
“You are free to disinherit anyone but your spouse,” Banninga says. “There are some guarantees for a spousal share no matter what you put in your will.”
There’s also a trust. You’ve probably heard of a trust—most people know what a “trust fund baby” is these days—and they are typically associated with richer clients or wealthy characters in movies as the subplot of some murder mystery. But trust funds can make sense for younger parents even if they don’t own three vineyards, as their infant won’t be ready to handle their money until much later in life. A trust simply designates money for life expenses handled by someone else until the person is old enough, or well enough, to handle the rest of the money.
Most people, the ones without car dealerships, pots of gold or big media companies to divide believe they are normal, but every family is different, and they can be complicated.
“Everyone thinks they are normal,” Brynteson says, “and a lot of times, we ask questions that people don’t think about. We have the experience to know where things can go wrong, and we can ask a lot of questions to help prevent that.”
Many clients don’t want to think about what happens when they die, Banninga says, as they’re either afraid or don’t want to address a dark subject in such a dark time.
“But formally putting together a will has zero percent to do with when you die or how you die,” he says. “It’s a hard conversation to have with people, and there aren’t a lot of people who are super comfortable with it. But if you don’t do it right, you potentially set up some problematic situations.”
The decisions in estate planning can be big and difficult regardless of who you are, Brynteson says, and sometimes those decisions, and plowing through your life, can freeze a person from making any decision at all. Brynteson’s father-in-law did struggle because he DID have a car dealership and other major assets, but the best thing he did was approaching it the right way.
“People can allow themselves to be paralyzed, but my father-in-law told people that he wasn’t Moses with the Ten Commandments,” Brynteson says. “They are living documents,
and you can make the best decisions based on what happens today. If things change, you can change things. You just need to do SOMETHING. A road map is so critical, and that’s true if you’re Bill Gates or if you have a simple family.”
What is an Estate Plan?
An estate plan should include the following:
- Durable financial power of attorney
- Medical power of attorney
- Advance medical declaration (living will)
- Personal property memorandum
- Designation of guardian for minor children
Source: Charles C. Tucker, PLLC
Dan England is a freelance writer who lives in Greeley. To comment on this article, email firstname.lastname@example.org.