Guest Columnists

S-Town and the importance of estate planning

The topic of estate planning is one many are happy to avoid. Lawyers, financial advisers, real estate agents and others will encourage you to have a quality estate plan professionally drafted, but that tends to be something you’ll get to eventually. Life happens, work piles up, your to-do list grows longer and deciding what you want done with your remains after you die seems like a worry for another day.

But once in a great while, pop culture helps make the topic of estate planning hard to ignore. Cue the buzz-worthy and highly binge-able podcast, S-Town. The podcast broke a record with 10 million downloads in four days last month, and central to the story it tells is what happens when someone dies without a will.

Here’s a no-spoiler overview: an individual dies without an estate plan, leaving a wake of conflict and confusion. A mother with dementia is left without defined care and guardianship; beloved pets are left without a trust to declare who will care for them; a religious funeral is held despite the deceased’s atheism; a house and land are sold, likely against the wishes of the deceased. The deceased had told some people of his wishes, but there was no written record and such hearsay doesn’t hold up in a probate court.

Besides the excellent storytelling, there is an important lesson from S-Town: you need to put clear directions in place regarding your property, cash and non-cash assets, pets, health care, and final disposition. You don’t want your family and friends to fight, press charges and dig up your property in search of gold when you die.

Estate planning isn’t hard; it just takes a little time and serious thought about five questions:

1. Who do I want to have my assets, both tangible and intangible property, as well as real estate?

2. Who do I want to be the “executor” of my estate plan? The executor is in charge of carrying out your wishes as written.

3. If I die leaving minor children, who do I want to be their legal guardian?

4. Which charities do I want to support with my estate assets?

5. What do I want done with final remains and what kind of service do I want?

Really, that’s it. If you can work through those questions, your lawyer can help you draft an estate plan that meets your needs.


I’m hosting a free workshop Wednesday from 12-1 p.m. at 325 E Washington St, Iowa City to demystify the estate planning process; to answer questions about wills, trusts, powers of attorney and other related documents; and to discuss how people can prepare for future illness, disability, or death and prevent legal, financial and bureaucratic struggles for their loved ones. For more information or to RSVP, email me at

• Gordon Fischer, of Iowa City, specializes in estate planning and nonprofit law.



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