My Capitals Tour

I recently enjoyed a 10 day trip back East, visiting Philadelphia, then New York, then Washington D.C. I didn't intend it to be a U.S. capitals tour, but was strikingly reminded, once I was there, that Philly was the first capital of our nation, followed by NYC and Washington. How appropriate for a trip just before the July 4th holiday!

Lots of history was revealed to me on my "capitals tour", but not exactly the type of history I might have expected.

Of course, I paid homage to many of the iconic places in our nation's history.

Where the Declaration of Independent was signed, now known as Independence Hall. It was originally called Carpenters' Hall, as it was a trade union headquarters!

Philly City Hall (with William Penn on the top!)

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Betsy Ross' home

Mr. Phil goes to Washington!

But what I learned from tour guides (and others fancying themselves as historians) was much different than what I recalled from my old school books!

Here are a few of the factoids, myths, fables and outright revisionist history I encountered (I'll let you sort out which is which, while I also provide you with a brief travelogue):

  • William Penn's father won the land comprising Pennsylvania in a bet with the King of England, but his father never visited it and William Penn himself only came briefly, once during his lifetime and was later buried there. Interestingly enough, his likeness now stands atop City Hall, scanning 24/7 the city of Philadelphia that he had paid little lifetime attention to!
  • Betsy Ross was an unwilling seamstress who was ordered in late June of 1776 to create over a hundred flags for the new country and deliver them in just a few days, so she ignored the original flag design given her (the stars were to be in rows something like today's flag) and instead placed the stars in a circle (because they could be sewn on faster!). I was also told that she never actually lived in the house now designated as her national monument!
  • There is a street in Philly named for me! (See photo below). Not really - - but there is a street named for me (and for each of my four siblings) in nearby Vineland, New Jersey, where I grew up and my grandfather was a home builder!
  • Ben Franklin did not fly the kite (with the key on a string) during a lighting storm - - it was his son! Ben stayed under a nearby tree to observe (I don't know whether he realized he wasn't a lot safer there). Ben also started the first fire insurance company in the U.S. and once competition arose he arranged for the local fire departments to ignore any houses not bearing his company's logo plaque!
  • While New York City has many skyscraper buildings, much of New York City is below sea level, which is why it flooded so badly when Hurricane Sandy hit. And now, sadly after 9/11, The Empire State Building is undergoing a tourist renaissance because it is once again the City's tallest building!
  • One of the best, yet often overlooked, museums in New York City - - the Frick - - was built as the huge private home of a late 19th century industrialist with the intention (stated in his Will) to have it continue as a free museum to the masses (since he had no children). But the "real dirt" was that he was a publicly reviled factory owner/union - buster who was driven out of his long-time residence in Pittsburgh and wanted to "clean up" his historical legacy.
  • The Washington Monument is undergoing reconstruction because an earthquake hit D.C. (yes, I said earthquake!) and believe it or not the Monument is built of stone blocks stacked on top of each other without any mortar between them!
  • Mr. Smithson, for whom are named a number of grandiose, awesome museums that he helped finance, was not a U.S. citizen and never came here (til his body was interred here)! He just admired American culture from afar and wanted to perpetuate it!
  • The FBI building was voted by an architectural society as the "ugliest" in the U.S. - - so the FBI is leaving it for another building! (But not changing the less than chic image that FBI agents have long cultivated with their dark sunglasses, and black ties, suits and shoes!)
  • There is a basement in the Lincoln Monument, where many of his lesser known quotes are posted on the walls, including this one I have to paraphrase from memory: "My opponents wrongly accuse me of pursuing this war in order to end slavery. My only reason is to save the Union. I would let slavery continue if it would save the Union." (Ironically, photos of Martin Luther King's famous march on Washington and "I have a dream" speech at the steps of the Lincoln Monument appear on the next wall over.)
  • Passing the first Post Office building, I was told that, when our early Presidents were passing out Department Secretary "plums", Ben Franklin requested and got the job of 1st Postmaster because he valued wealth over power - - and, after being appointed to this position became the 1st millionaire in America!
  • President Ulysses S. Grant, known for his passion for alcohol, liked to frequent the bar located in the grand lobby of D.C.'s Willard Hotel. While there, he was constantly beseeched by people begging him for favors. One day when the bartender asked him how he might be of service, Grant retorted with a snarl, "I wish you could get rid of these damned lobbyists!" - - and from that moment the word "lobbyists" entered American political parlance.
  • The actual lunar landing module, when seen in person at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, appears to be such a flimsy piece of junk - - like something a kid put together in the backyard with duct tape and aluminum foil - - that one could easily believe the moon landing really was made up! (My apologies to any aerospace engineer readers.)

What's fact, myth, fable and just plain revisionist history? Your guess is as good as mine. It's all about the "telling" - - what and how events are passed down over time.

Unfortunately, few people ever take the time to tell and thereby write their own history, for future generations to enjoy. Have you sat down with your family and related the history of your ancestors and your own story? Have you recorded it so you can avoid future revisionism?

If you don't know how to do this, or you think it might be too difficult to do, there is an alternative. Work with a professional "legacy recorder". We highly recommend the services of Lance Keller (310-798-7172; www.DigitalLegacyCA.com). He can sit down with you, conduct a video interview and then edit the tape to add precious photos or documents that can supplement your "telling".

I'm sure your loved ones will appreciate this for many years to come. And unlike Franklin and the others mentioned, you'll get to set the historical record straight (or at least tell your story the way you want it remembered!).

Estate Planning for Married Couples

Planning The Next Chapter

Marital Matters

You and your fiancé just spent the last year of your lives planning your dream wedding. And to your delight, the big event went off without a hitch. The food, the flowers, the first kiss ... everything was perfect. You are now married. But have you actually thought about what being married means? Have you thought about how you will honor your wedding vows and be there for your spouse in sickness and in health?

Not surprisingly, very few married couples - whether they are newlyweds or celebrating sixty years of marriage - realize the importance of estate planning. However, every married couple needs some form of estate planning arrangement to protect and provide for their spouse - in sickness and in health.

Without prior planning, disability due to an illness or injury can cause needless legal and financial challenges in a marriage. Fortunately, a little preventive "maintenance" now could help avoid disaster later on down the road. In this article, we review some of the most essential preventive measures to help you honor your wedding vows.

Estate Planning for Legal Challenges

Most married couples have the mistaken belief that they can make personal, health care and financial decisions for one another should either spouse become disabled. But in reality, nothing could be further from the truth.

Every adult American citizen is responsible for making his or her own personal, health care and financial decisions. Accordingly, if one spouse is legally disabled, then the other spouse will not automatically have access to the disabled spouse's medical information, bank accounts, retirement plans, etc. In fact, the healthy spouse will not even be able to file a joint income tax return for the couple.

Unless you have already legally appointed your spouse to be your Agent to make your decisions in the event of your disability, then decisions regarding your personal, health care and financial affairs will come to a screeching halt! You and your spouse will find yourselves involuntary participants in the Lawyer Full-Employment Program of the Probate Court.

When forced to participate in the Lawyer Full-Employment Program, the non-disabled spouse must first hire an attorney to bring suit declaring the other spouse as legally disabled and request that the Probate Court give the non-disabled spouse legal authority to act on behalf of the disabled spouse. The Probate Judge must then appoint a different lawyer to represent the disabled spouse against the petitioning spouse. Eventually, after considerable red tape, expense and disclosure of private matters (i.e., personal, health care and financial), the Probate Judge will most likely appoint the non-disabled spouse as the Guardian over personal and health care matters, and as Conservator over financial matters.

Fortunately, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure when it comes to avoiding the Lawyer Full-Employment Program. If you are at least 18 years old and married, then you need to legally appoint your spouse to make your personal, health care and financial decisions. The necessary legal documents include Advance Health Directives (e.g., Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care Decisions/Health Care Treatment Directive/Health Care Proxy/Living Will) and a Durable Power of Attorney for Financial Matters.

Estate Planning for Financial Challenges

While it is important to legally appoint your spouse to make your decisions in the event of your disability, it is just as important to be financially prepared should you become disabled. Because of poor planning, many families are forced into bankruptcy when the household income is suddenly insufficient to meet financial obligations.

In case you are unable to work due to an injury or illness, be sure to maintain Disability Income Insurance throughout your working years. And after retirement, your Disability Income Insurance (i.e., once needed to insure a steady paycheck upon disability) should be replaced by Long-Term Care Insurance to pay for long-term care (e.g., nursing home). Without it, many couples are forced to rely on the underfunded Medicaid system once their assets have been depleted to the poverty level.

Federal Taxes and the Non-Citizen Spouse

Non-Citizen Spouses

Most people don't need to worry about the federal gift and estate tax, which affects only very wealthy families. Under current law, everyone gets to transfer $5.25 million of property without paying any gift and estate tax, which means that very few families pay the tax. Furthermore, assets left to a surviving spouse are not subject to federal estate tax, no matter how much they are worth. This rule is called the unlimited marital deduction. One caveat, however, is that the unlimited marital deduction does not apply when the surviving spouse is not a U.S. citizen, even if the spouse is a permanent U.S. resident.

Gifts Given During Life

If your spouse is a U.S. citizen, any gifts you give to them during your life are free of federal gift tax. If your spouse is not a U.S. citizen, however, the favorable tax-free treatment for spouses is limited to $143,000 a year (2013). But note, the $143,000 is in addition to the $5.25 million you can transfer to anyone without owing federal gift and/or estate tax.

Postponing or Avoiding Estate Taxes Upon Death

If you have substantial wealth and a non-citizen spouse, you should consider one of the following strategies to postpone or avoid federal estate taxes.

  • Get Citizenship

    If your spouse becomes a U.S. citizen by the time your estate's federal estate tax return is due, he or she will qualify for the unlimited marital deduction. The return is generally due nine months after death, but the IRS may grant a six-month extension. Because it takes a long time to get citizenship, however, this isn't an option for most people.

  • Use a QDOT Trust

    Your noncitizen spouse can inherit from you free of estate tax if you use a special trust, called a "qualified domestic trust" or QDOT. (Internal Revenue Code section 2056A.) You leave property to the trust, instead of directly to your spouse and name your spouse as the only beneficiary of the trust.

    If your spouse receives income that the trust property generates, these amounts are not subject to estate tax. However, if trust assets themselves are distributed to your spouse, the estate tax will most likely have to be paid on that property. (Unless distribution is made due to a qualifying hardship).

    A QDOT must be established, and the property must be transferred to it, by the time the estate tax return of the deceased spouse is due. Usually, it's set up while both spouses are alive and comes into existence when the citizen spouse dies. And finally, the trustee must be a U.S. citizen or a U.S. corporation - such as a bank or trust company.

    Transfers of wealth to non-citizen spouses involve complicated legal rules. Be sure to speak with an experienced estate planning lawyer to ensure compliance.