Doesn't everyone love The Office?
There are so many classic episodes and I never get tired of watching them. I think that my son knows the dialogue of every single episode by heart. I can mention any scene or episode to him, and he can rattle off the dialogue right off the top of his head. It's one of those shows where part of me wishes they would do a reboot and make new episodes, but the other part of me recognizes that you can't always catch lightning in a bottle twice. Any reboot probably wouldn't do justice to the original anyway.
Jim and Pam's wedding is a classic multi-series episode. So is Goodbye Michael, when Steve Carell left the show. There are tons more, like the time Dwight cut the face off of a CPR dummy, and Michael and Jan's famous dinner party. Let’s not forget the finale where Steve Carell reprised his role as Michael one last time, with his final “That’s what she said”. Classic and awesome. Remember, the characters on The Office were human beings just like everyone else. For that reason, they would need estate planning just like anyone else. Of course, I would give them estate planning advice specific to their character, just like I would give to any client that comes in to see me.
Here's the estate planning advice that I would give to some of my favorite Office characters. I have advice for Michael, Holly, Jim, Pam, Dwight, and even Creed, with some bonus info that I would give to Ryan.
First, let's start with Michael from his first episode, to his last.
This is a guy that has proven he has a good heart and that sometimes his heart is bigger than his brain. Michael was a good guy, who always cared for others more than he cared for himself. After a few failed relationships, like Jan and Pam’s mom, Michael finally found his forever love, Holly. Eventually, he married Holly and they had young children. Therefore, we start with the big three, which consist of the will, the healthcare proxy, and the power of attorney. Then, we look at a family trust (more on that below, when we talk about Jim and Pam). Michael seems like a prime candidate for a car trust as well.
A car trust can be used to protect your car and make sure it’s left to the beneficiary of your choosing (and not to someone like your deadbeat son-in-law). It’s usually reserved for classic or antique cars, but Michael loved his convertible. His company car, a convertible Chrysler Sebring, was a huge source of pride for him. He would go on sales calls with Dwight, while Dwight begged him to put the top down, no matter how cold out it was. He might even want to protect that old van they bought for doing deliveries with the Michael Scott paper company. Or his PT Cruiser. A car trust can own as many vehicles as you want.
His arc on the show came to an end when he moved across the country with his wife, Holly because she had to take care of her father who was suffering from dementia.
So, let’s talk about Holly and her father.
Dementia is something that I have to deal with on behalf of clients every single day. It is a disease that virtually everyone has been affected by in one way or another. When dealing with a parent or a loved one that has dementia, it is vitally important that they have a power of attorney and a healthcare proxy in place. As the symptoms of dementia worsen, it can rapidly get to the point where the individual suffering from the disease doesn't have the required legal capacity to make financial decisions or healthcare decisions.
By having a healthcare proxy in place, Holly's dad could name her to make healthcare decisions for him if he couldn't do so for himself. He could also name Holly as his power of attorney so that she could make financial decisions for him and potentially move money around, if it were necessary, for him to qualify for long-term care benefits through Medicaid. At the same time, I would recommend a Medicaid trust for Holly's dad if he owned a home. Placing that home into trust can protect the home from long-term care liens and nursing home liens. The trick is that the trust has to be drawn up by an expert and it has to be done absolutely perfectly.
The other catch is that it takes five years for the protection to become fully effective. So, you want to put that type of trust in place sooner rather than later, especially if someone is showing signs of dementia, then there is no time to waste. The trust needs to be enacted right away. The trust would help keep the real estate out of probate so that it would pass to Holly's dad's beneficiaries at the time of his passing without any waiting periods or court intervention needed.
Next, let's talk about Jim and Pam, everyone's favorite couple.
Jim and Pam's wedding at Niagara Falls is one of my favorite episodes, and the dance that The Office staff did while walking down the aisle at the wedding is unforgettable. Anytime it's on TV, I stop what I'm doing and watch. And any time I hear the song Forever by Chris Brown, it automatically takes me back to that episode. At the conclusion of the series, Jim and Pam had two children, Cecelia and Philip. So, they are the classic family unit.
It's very important that the two of them have the big three. On top of that, Jim and Pam need a family trust. That's because their kids are minors and we don't want the inheritance to pass through minor children because they aren't old enough to inherit directly. They are not old enough to know how to deal with substantial assets. We especially don't want a child who turns 18 to inherit a bunch of money at once because an 18-year-old is not mentally equipped to deal with assets like that.
Instead, we set up a family trust where we put someone else in charge of the money to use on behalf of the children and for their benefit, and then we give the money to the children a little bit at a time when they reach certain benchmarks ages. We might give one-third of their inheritance to them at age 21, another third at 23, and the rest of it at 25. That way, we aren't unloading a big sum of money on young adults all at one time. We don't know the exact nature of Jim and Pam's financial situation, but at the conclusion of the series, Jim was going to take a management position with a company that he had done work for previously doing sports marketing.
If we assume that Jim and Pam's assets would put them in a range of estate taxes, then we could further equip the family trust with Summit's state tax provisions to help minimize or eliminate those taxes. When we add estate tax provisions to a family trust, the name changes, and we call it a credit shelter trust, or an AB trust. That trust is designed to make sure that each individual is allowed their maximum estate tax exemption, which is otherwise lost at the death of a first spouse in a married couple. If Jim and Pam had life insurance policies in place for their kids, we might also suggest a life insurance trust, which can be utilized to make sure that yes, the kids receive the benefit of any life insurance money. At the same time, we use the trust to keep the life insurance funds out of Jim and Pam's taxable estate for estate tax purposes.
Now, let's talk about Dwight.
This character evolved a lot over the course of the series. In the beginning, he came off as a know it all that spent a lot of time annoying Jim. And in turn, Jim spent a lot of time finding pranks to play on Dwight. Dwight, early on in the series, pretty much worshiped Michael and did whatever he said, but after Michael's eventual move across the country and departure from the show, Dwight really came into his own as a much more likable character who eventually fell in love with and married Angela.
Dwight is the owner of a 60-acre beet farm that he used as a bed and breakfast. He also eventually bought the building where Dunder Mifflin was housed so he was a business owner and an owner of commercial real estate. Dwight and Angela had a young son, Philip, and therefore, the start of their estate plan should match Jim and Pam's. They need the big three along with a family trust and credit shelter trust provisions to help avoid estate taxes. It is important to note that Dwight was a business owner and a commercial real estate owner. Commercial real estate should definitely be put into either a realty trust or a Medicaid trust.
Depending on Dwight's age and health, I would recommend whichever was better for him at the time. A Medicaid trust would help protect the commercial property from long-term care liens if he ever ended up in a nursing home, even though he said several times that he planned to die on his farm, and he and Angela got married in Schrute tradition while standing in their own graves.
Business owners face some particular estate planning issues because they need to have a succession plan in place so that someone is there to take over the business. If Dwight were to pass away, he may want Angela or eventually their son, Philip, to take over. His estate planning would need to account for that as well.
Who could forget Creed?
People that are familiar with the show may remember that in the finale, Creed was taken away in handcuffs because it was discovered that he had committed a number of crimes, as well as faked his own death. After performing a song in the last episode, he was last seen being put in the back of a police car. As we saw during the course of the series, Creed was full of secrets. We never knew really where he came from or what his family was like. We do know that he had a fear of the authorities, and any time there were police or any other such agencies around the office, Creed would disappear. Remember the Murder Mystery Party? As soon as Michael said, “There’s been a murder and you are a suspect”, Creed was heading for the hills.
While I am never in favor of doing anything dishonest or fraudulent, trusts are one of the ways that we can keep the details about our money and assets secret from other prying eyes. A family trust or a revocable living trust would be a way for Creed to set aside his money, make sure it passes to the beneficiaries that he wanted, and keep it away from his own personal bank accounts. While it would be important for him to have the big three, a revocable trust is something he would definitely consider, considering how secretive he was about his finances and his life in general.
Lastly, let's talk about Ryan.
People familiar with the show might remember that Ryan went from being a temp at Dunder Mifflin Scranton, to be the youngest VP in company history, to then being arrested for shareholder fraud, and along the way, he was addicted to drugs. While drugs are no laughing matter, Ryan credits Michael for helping him get off drugs and get sober. There are many situations, unfortunately, where we have clients who want to leave assets to their children, but one of their children may have a substance abuse problem.
In those cases, the parent does not want to leave money outright to that child because they know that that money could be used to perpetuate their addiction. Instead, we recommend that the money be placed in what's called a supplemental needs trust, sometimes also referred to as a special needs trust. In those situations, we put a separate person in charge of those funds. We make sure that the funds are to be used on the behalf of the child, but the money is not given to that child directly, and therefore cannot be used to feed their addiction. The money can be used by the trustee to assist the addicted person with getting help through treatment centers and rehab. In the case of our good friend, Ryan Howard, his parents would want to set up a supplemental needs trust for him to make sure that any money he would receive at the passing of his mom or dad would not end up being utilized to feed his addiction disease.
In closing, I will say that The Office was always filled with great music. Michael and his staff loved to perform. There were lots of skits and songs that they played regularly, especially in the Goodbye Michael episode, where the rest of the staff sang him a goodbye song. However, I think my favorite is when Michael's arch-nemesis, Toby, was moving to Costa Rica and Michael stood on stage and sang the song, Goodbye Toby. He rattled off the lyrics with sheer glee oozing out of him. But as we all know, after getting injured in Costa Rica, Toby would soon be returned to The Office, to Michael's displeasure. What could possibly be funnier than that?
We all know that there are tons of other great Office characters like Andy, Oscar, Stanley, Meredith, and Kevin. If anyone is curious about what type of estate planning advice I would give to those characters, or any other office characters, please mention who you'd like to hear about in the comments and I'll be sure and respond with the estate planning advice I would give to them!