Wills, Trusts, Estate Planning and Probate Law


The attorneys in Dickinson Bradshaw's Des Moines, Iowa-based Wills, Trusts, Estate Planning and Probate Law practice help clients preserve, administer, and transfer wealth. Our attorneys use a broad variety of techniques and strategies to accomplish our clients' goals, which include protecting assets from creditors, minimizing gift and estate taxes, and motivating beneficiaries to be functional and productive citizens of their communities. Depending on each client's needs, we can assist with just one issue or address the complex needs of a multi-million dollar estate with multiple business interests.

We provide legal advice for clients in developing all components of an estate plan including life insurance, methods of providing for a child's education, charitable planning, planning for distribution of IRAs or pension benefits, coordinating estate planning among multiple generations, farm succession planning, and planning for persons with disabilities and special needs.

Owners of private and closely held companies have unique estate planning requirements. We counsel owners of these businesses on alternatives for transferring ownership and control to the next generation, and in solving liquidity concerns associated with estate taxes.

We also provide assistance to fiduciaries in the administration of trusts and estates, including providing advice about the construction of wills and trusts, complex issues of fiduciary law, and fiduciary tax issues. Our services also include the preparation of estate and fiduciary income tax returns and representation of fiduciaries in court.

If avoidance of probate is an objective, the firm's trusts and estates attorneys are able to implement many probate avoidance methods so clients' assets and estate plans are not made public by the probate system.  If probate is necessary, we have significant probate experience with estates ranging from nominal size to many millions of dollars.

When powers of attorney are inadequate or unavailable for the care and protection of a loved one who can no longer care for himself or herself, a guardianship or conservatorship is generally required. Our attorneys are experienced in assisting guardians and conservators with the creation and administration of guardianships and conservatorships including representation of guardians and conservators before court and preparation of pleadings and annual reports. We frequently serve as attorney representatives for wards as required by Iowa guardianship and conservatorship laws.

Attorneys in the practice area interact and consult with Dickinson Bradshaw's litigation attorneys to handle disputed probate proceedings, including will and trust contests, trustee accounting, claims and other proceedings.

Representative Trusts & Estates Law

  • Dickinson Bradshaw’s trusts and estates attorneys are well versed in creating tax efficient trusts with minimal maintenance requirements. We regularly help clients, including those without a high net worth, take advantage of the benefits of trusts.
  • Dickinson Bradshaw attorneys regularly form asset protection trusts under the Iowa Trust Act to shield assets from clients’ creditors including the IRS and spouses.
  • Our attorneys implement Crummey trusts, including irrevocable life insurance trusts, to make clients’ gifts to children and other beneficiaries free of gift and estate tax. 
  • Our lawyers are well versed in creating generation skipping trusts, QTIP trusts, general power of appointment trusts and credit shelter trusts to minimize transfer taxes including gift taxes, death taxes and inheritance taxes. 
  • We use sprinkle trusts and a broad assortment of incentive trusts to help clients motivate their beneficiaries to better their life situation through efforts such as combating addiction, continuing education, starting a business or raising a family.
  • Because all the aforementioned trusts have income tax consequences, our lawyers routinely analyze each situation and use grantor trust provisions including sales to intentionally defective grantor trusts to minimize income taxes for trust creators and beneficiaries.

Frequently Asked Questions Regarding Probate

What does it mean to probate an estate?

Probate is the court supervised legal process by which the ownership of assets is changed from the decedent’s name to a beneficiary’s name. If a decedent dies with a will (meaning, the decedent dies testate), then the probate process will include establishing the validity of the will. If the decedent’s will is valid and the decedent has made no other provisions for his assets (such as payable on death, transfer on death, or joint tenancy with rights of survivorship), then his assets will be transferred to the persons specified in his will. If a decedent dies without a will (meaning, the decedent dies intestate), the probate process will include legally determining the decedent’s heirs-at-law and who is entitled to his property.

How long does it take to probate an estate?

By law, an estate that is being probated is required to publish notice of probate in a newspaper of general circulation once a week for two consecutive weeks. Creditors have four months from the date of the second publication to file claims. Therefore, the shortest period of time in which an estate can complete the probate process is about four and a half months. However, the amount of time required to complete a probate varies greatly and depends on many factors including the claims of creditors, the types of tax returns that need to be filed, and the nature and extent of property to be sold or distributed.

How much does it cost to probate an estate?

Attorney fees for probating an estate are limited by the Iowa Code. Legal costs of a probate range from $2,000 to no more than two percent of the gross assets of the estate, depending on circumstances. A decedent’s gross estate does not include life insurance with a designated beneficiary. In rare instances, an attorney can request and receive additional fees for extraordinary work done on an estate. All fees are subject to Court approval.

How can I avoid probate?

Some clients wish to avoid the probate process all together. There are a few different ways to avoid probate, but it should be noted that avoiding probate does not avoid the payment of estate or inheritance taxes or debts to creditors. Avoiding probate simply means not having to go through the probate process in the courtroom.

One of the most common tools for avoiding probate is the use of a revocable trust. An individual creates a revocable trust agreement and declares herself trustee of her trust. All assets of the individual must be transferred into the revocable trust’s name. The trust instrument declares how the assets are to be handled during the creator’s lifetime and disbursed upon the creator’s death. Then, upon the death of the creator of the trust, the successor trustee nominated in the trust instrument will handle the process of transferring the assets to their intended beneficiaries. If handled correctly, a revocable trust can allow an estate to sidestep the probate process. A great deal of attention should be paid, however, to assuring all assets have been transferred to the trust. Forgetting to transfer just one asset into the revocable trust can cause the entire estate to be subject to probate.

Probate can also be avoided for certain property (such as brokerage accounts, bank accounts, retirement plans and IRAs) by designating a beneficiary of such property.  Alternatively, one or more persons can be added to the title of some types of property as joint tenants with rights of survivorship. This type of probate avoidance results in a “survivor takes all” succession plan, and can also result in unwanted gift tax liability.

Estate Planning Intake Form

Below is the intake form used for our clients during the estate planning process. The intake form is available as a fillable pdf document, and can be saved to your computer or sent to an email address using the submit button in the upper right-hand corner. To see a definition of estate planning terms, hover your mouse over the words in green.

Estate Planning Intake Form (PDF)