Post-death process with a living trust and estate plan

Yesterday we talked about the probate process, and what happens after a loved ones dies. Today, let’s go through that same process, but this time, our loved one has an estate plan and has put all of their affairs in order before they passes.  Remembering what we went over yesterday, here is how it would go with an estate plan:

In the hours following the death, you go to the funeral home, and the director tells you that your loved one came in years ago and chose their own service, with music, readings, flowers, and everything all picked out and paid for.  You don’ t have to decide a THING except what day to do it.  Oh, and your loved one already planned – and paid for – the life celebration party afterwards.  There are no decisions to make – the director tells you to go home, grieve, and take care of your family.

You get to the house, and you already know where the estate plan binder is.  Because you’ve already been over it, you know there’s a letter right inside that’s intended to be instructions for you on what you need to do.  You go to it, and feeling overwhelmed by everything, with the letters swimming on the page in front of you, you decide to just call the lawyer – me.  What do I tell you?  I say – there’s nothing you have to do right now.  You, take care of your family, grieve, and get back to me in a couple weeks – if you still need me – when you’re ready to move forward.

Those early hours, days and weeks are precious – precious time to be with your loved ones, to remember and celebrate to one who has died, and to work on our own processing of what’s happened and what it means to us.  An estate plan gives you that time.

When it comes time to assess the assets, pay the debts and transfer the property, the process:

  1. Involves no lawyers and no court;
  2. The fees are overall generally less than $100 in total; and
  3. Takes a few days to a month, depending on how quickly YOU work

Because you have all of the instructions, you don’t need to call a lawyer. The process is simple and quick, and costs almost nothing.

Does that sound like something you’d prefer to have from your loved one than the probate example?

Then, I ask, WHY are YOU not doing this for YOUR loved ones?  How could you not, knowing now what you do? What are you waiting for?

Estate planning is more than legal documents: Ethical Wills

When I work with clients on their estate plans, I work with them on the legal aspects, such as their living trust, will, and powers of attorney.  But I also work on other aspects of their estate plan and getting their affairs in order.  For example, I work with them to talk to their family about their estate plan.  I work with them to pre-plan and pre-pay for their funeral needs.  Happy stuff, right?  Well, it may not be the most desired of conversations, but –

  • It’s necessary.  If you don’t want to talk about it now, you will at some point.  And if you wait too long, you may not get the chance.
  • Once you talk about it once, especially with someone uninvolved like me, talking to the family becomes much easier.
  • If you knew what you were doing to your family but not having the conversations, and making them guess at what you want, then you would never leave anything unsaid.

Another thing that I talk to my clients about is an “ethical will.”  An ethical will is a document where you share your life lessons, hopes, dreams, values, history, faith, love and forgiveness with your family, friends, and community.  Gaining in popularity in the last several years, there are several online websites where you can record your ethical will and keep it, or there are forms you can download and/or purchase.  For my clients, I ensure that they have the document then need to record everything they would ever want to, such as the items noted above, in addition to genealogical, medical, military, and other histories as well as other pertinent information.

As we get older, the desire and need to leave a legacy becomes stronger and stronger.  We want to be remembered, for our lives, for our contributions and for our love.  As long as we are remembered, we stay alive.  Creating an ethical will is a way to leave that legacy that is so important.

Trusts and debt payment

I am often asked whether creating a living trust will allow the creator to avoid their debts: their mortgage, their credit cards, their other loans and secured debt.  The short answer?  No.

Living trusts are generally created to avoid probate, estate taxes, and allow one generation to pass assets along to the next generation with a minimum of hassle and expense.  Once you pass away, your successor trustee still has to determine what your debts are, pay them from your estate, assess taxes, and then distribute your assets according to your wishes.

What my debt-averse clients may be thinking of is a spendthrift (or asset management) trust, which does in fact protect the assets in the trust from the beneficiary’s creditors.  Spendthrift trusts are used when an individual or couple want to leave money to someone, usually a child, but don’t want to leave a large amount outright, or all at once.  So, for example, the beneficiary gets a certain percentage or amount at regular intervals (or for specific expenses, like education or health or living expenses), but is not entitled to the entirety of the money until a certain time or age.  In this case, should a creditor come after the child and the money in the trust, so long as there are restrictions placed on the disbursements to the child, then the trust money will be protected against the creditor.  This can mean  a great deal when, for example, there are millions in the trust and the beneficiary gets into a serious car accident with large liability.

In general, however, living trusts do not let you get out of paying your debts. The only way to get out of paying your debts is to not leave enough estate to pay them…which I would not recommend to anyone!

When to update your estate plan

I am often asked when an estate plan should be updated, and in fact I have written on it before.  But it is important to revisit from time to time, particularly when there are new estate laws as there are now.  In general terms, an estate plan should be reviewed in two instances:

  1. Each time there has been a birth, death, marriage, divorce, acquisition or disposition of property or a business in the family, and
  2. Every 1-2 years.

By “review” I don’t mean we need to dig up the binder (you do have a binder, right?), and pore over it, page by page.  No.  What I mean is that we need to think about what is in our estate plan.  You should know it in detail because your lawyer explained it so well to you during the process!  So, you want to review who your beneficiaries are, and whether the property distribution you’ve selected still is appropriate.  You want to review who is your successor trustee/executor, as well as who acts as your agent on your powers of attorney.  Have you changed your mind about your advance directive?  These are the questions you should ask yourself, and it really should not take more than 20-30 minutes.  Go through any changes in your family, and see if those changes, or anything else that has happened in the last year or two, make you want to change your estate plan.

In addition, if you have created your estate plan in the last five years, you may want to contact an estate planning attorney now to make sure your estate plan is still the most appropriate for you given the new laws and tax exemption.

In any event, if you have an estate plan that was created before 2008, or powers of attorney created before 2003, you really need to get an update, or at least an opinion on whether an update is necessary.  I don’t know about other estate planning attorneys, but I don’t charge for an estate plan review, even for those estate plans I’ve not created myself.  So what do you have to lose?

Putting your affairs in order: what documents to collect to save your family

Generally, we think of “putting our affairs in order” as something we do after we get the terminal illness diagnosis from the doctor.  There are many reasons not to wait for that time to get your affairs situated, but I’ll leave that for another time.  Today I want to talk about what it actually means to get your affairs in order. First, though, let’s see why it’s important:

Have you ever been the one “in charge” after someone has died?  No?  Imagine this: your nearest and dearest loved one has passed away.  You’ve talked to the hospital and picked a mortuary, so that’s a process that’s been started.  It’s really hard to talk about your loved ones “body” or “remains” while you’re still trying to process the loss in the first few minutes or hours.  But then you feel like you have to DO something, so you head to the house to see if you can find the “important papers.”  Two things can happen at this point:

Scenario one is that you arrive, and already know where the estate plan is, and head right for it.  With it are all of the life insurance policies, retirement and bank accounts, instructions, pre-need funeral planning receipts and contact information, and smaller things like an address book to get in touch with all his/her friends, a locked box (which you have the key) with all of the computer passwords, safe combinations and the like.  There seems to be a lot to do, so you contact the estate planning attorney, who, after asking you a couple questions, says, “there’s nothing to worry about and nothing to do.  Take care of you, your family, and the final arrangements.  Then call me back in a couple weeks if you have questions, but the instructions should all be there…just don’t worry about it now.”  So this is what you do, as you start calling friends and family members and bracing for the days ahead.

Scenario two is that you arrive, and don’t know where anything is.  Does s/he even have life insurance?  Where are the bank accounts?  Was there a will?  Where is it?  You start tearing apart the desk, closets, cupboards,…and find nothing.  Now you’re grieving, in shock, have a million things to do, and now you can’t find anything.  This adds to your stress, so you call in other family members, who are now tearing apart the boxes in the garage.  Everything is chaos, and still no information.  It’s overwhelming to the family.

Which would you prefer your loved ones experience?

The former?  GREAT choice.  Now, here’s what to put in the file:

  1. Your estate plan, with trust and will.
  2. Your powers of attorney.
  3. Your life/long-term care insurance information.
  4. Your retirement information.
  5. Bank account information.
  6. Pre-need funeral planning documents.
  7. Investment account documents.
  8. Deeds of property, such as homes, vehicles and boats.
  9. Health, disability, auto and property insurance documents.
  10. Income source documents (social security, employment, investments, child/spousal support).
  11. Credit card statements and evidence of other debt.
  12. Important papers, such as marriage/birth/death certificates, passports, tax returns, military or genealogical records.
  13. Names/contact information of trusted professionals, such as accountants, lawyers, financial advisors, gardeners, house cleaners or caregivers, home repair professionals (electrician, plumber, roofer, chimney sweep, etc.).

And one final thought: make sure you have at least one trusted friend or family member who knows where it is and what’s in it.

Have step-children or a step-parent? Are you one? How to avoid disinheriting your family

Estate planning presents unique issues for blended families.  Blended families are families in which one or both parents have children from a previous relationship.  The problem comes when one spouse dies without an estate plan, or an old or outdated one.  Generally, when spouses hold property in California (or anywhere in the US), they hold it in joint tenancy.  When one joint tenant dies, the other one gets the entire property.

Can you see where we’re going with this?

When one spouse of a blended family dies, then the other spouse generally gets all the property of the couple, often by default.  When it comes time to distribute the assets at the death of the second spouse, the second spouse can essentially disinherit the first spouse’s children.  The second spouse, with all the property in his/her name, has control over the ultimate disposition of the property.  If there is a family rift between the second spouse and the step-children, if the second spouse is negligent in creating an estate plan providing for the step-children, or in other cases, then the children of the first spouse to die can be left out in the cold.

Don’t leave your children out in the cold by failing to provide for them with an estate plan.

An attorney who makes house calls?!

Yes, I make house calls.  In fact, the majority of my appointments are in my client’s homes.  I do have an office in Dublin, but I find that the house calls are more common, more appreciated, and better all around.  Here’s why:

  1. Many of my clients are older and appreciate not having to travel to an appointment.  I had a client who lived just about 6 miles from my office, but in his mind, my office was in another country!
  2. I offer flexible appointment times, such as weekends and evenings, so making the appointment at a client’s home is easier for travel.
  3. I appreciate being able to avoid Bay Area traffic, so I work with my clients so we all avoid it.
  4. I am not the kind of attorney who sits in her office all day, waiting for the phone to ring, so I am often on the go anyway.
  5. It’s not weird.  Really, it never is.  We usually sit in the dining room, at the table, and everyone is more relaxed and comfortable.
  6. Ah, comfort.  No one likes to talk about their eventual demise and dividing up their stuff amongst their family.  Being in a safe, familiar environment instead of a stuffy attorney’s office can make it easier (not that my office is stuffy!).
  7. Range.  I work with networking partners who work all over the Bay Area, and if I have a referral from Santa Rosa or South San Jose, I can work with them due to my willingness to travel.

My tag line is “Unlike any attorney you’ve ever met.”  I use this because many of my clients, friends and referral partners tell me this.  I want to blast the stereotypes of lawyers being distant, hard to reach and talk to, stuffy, boring, inflexible, and dismissive.  I know that my clients are putting their lives into my hands, so I want to treat that as if it is the most precious gift, as it is.  My clients and their families deserve the best, so this is what I give to them.