Estate planning when you don’t have children or other heirs

Most of us first think about estate planning once we have a child. We know that having a child means we have to create something to secure our children’s future should something happen to us. But what about when there are no children? I have several clients who fit this profile in various areas in the Bay Area, and I have done estate plans – created living trusts – for single and married, childless, individuals and couples in Oakland, San Leandro, Lafayette, Fremont, and Hayward, among others.

There are a variety of different options for you if you don’t have children or other natural heirs. You can leave your estate to your siblings, parents, or other relatives, such as cousins. One client of mine set up an educational trust for her younger family members to help them to pay for college. You can use the opportunity to support a charity, as one client of mine is supporting a local animal rescue charity in her estate plan. In addition to animal charities, there are a wide variety of disease and disorder charities that are always seeking donations. Schools also will gladly accept donations in the form of bequests, so you can support a school that helped you to get where you are. One of my estate planning clients is leaving a substantial grant to UC Berkeley in their trust.

If you don’t create an estate plan and don’t have natural heirs, then your estate will go to the state. While you may not think this is too terrible, perhaps since you didn’t know exactly who to leave your money and assets to, I urge you to consider this:

1. What do you want your legacy to be? Leaving it to no one – the state – means there is no legacy at all.
2. There are so many deserving, hard-working, underfunded charities out there. Isn’t there at least one you would like to support?
3. You worked your entire life to create your estate and your legacy. Why not leave it to a cause important to you?

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?

The probate process in California

Many people know that it is wise to create an estate plan that allows your estate to avoid probate when you pass away.  But few know or understand why probate it something to be avoided. One of the ways to understand it is to take you through the process of what happens when someone passes away.

For our purposes here, imagine for a moment that it’s not you that is passing away, but rather your closest family member – except for this discussion let’s choose someone other than our spouse.  Take a quick moment to think of how difficult that would be to lose someone you love so dearly.  And now, imagine all that there is to do when someone passes away:

  1. There’s the funeral, which generally happens pretty quickly and plans are made within hours of the death.  There are decisions to be made about clothing, caskets, scheduling day and time, who will read, what will they read, will there be a gathering afterwards, will there be food, where will it come from, who will be invited…it’s overwhelming.
  2. Then there’s the will – is there one?  The life insurance, the retirement accounts, the bank accounts.  You go to the house: do you know where your loved one keeps the important documents?  Would you be tearing apart the desk, the file cabinet, the drawers?  What would you find?  How would you feel about having to search?

REMEMBER:  This is all in the first few hours and days after the death, at a time when the loss is most shocking, most raw, and most difficult to deal with.

  1. Once you find the documents – did you find them? – you have to figure out how to transfer the property, and generally – without a plan – this means the probate process, which we’ll talk about in a minute.
  2. In come the lawyers, the lawyer’s fees, the appraisers – the strangers, in your home, in your life.
  3. To transfer the property, the pay the debts, to sell the house – or even transfer it – to get access to the bank accounts…all of these things can take weeks, months and years.
  4. The probate process, which is the court procedure for transferring your property when you don’t have an estate plan or have just a will, is a long, arduous process.  It involves:
    1. Multiple court hearings and appearances, lawyers, accountants, appraisers…
    2. A timeline of 2-3-5 years…or more
    3. Cost:  A huge cost.  Probate fees and costs can take up to 8-10% of your gross estate – that’s your assets not including your debt, so if you have a house worth $300,000 and nothing else, probate fees can be up to $30,000
    4. You have – your family has – worked your entire LIFE to create and build your estate.  Why give it to lawyers and courts?

In the probate process, while the cost is a big consideration, the time is also key because you and your family need and want to move on from the death and the grief, and when the probate process continues on for years and years – and you can’t sell the house, and you can’t get access to the accounts, then it drags out the normal emotional process way beyond what is healthy.

Does this sound like something you want to go through?  Something you want to put your family through?

Now, what if I were to tell you that there is a BETTER WAY?  A way to avoid ALL of this trouble?  We’ll go through this again in the next blog post…stay tuned!

Estate planning for same sex couples in California

California has made some strides toward equality for same sex couples, but it cannot be said that there isn’t still a long way to go.  As unfair as it is, same sex couple have to do more: prepare more documents, plan for more contingencies/eventualities, update more frequently – than their heterosexual counterparts.  The worst thing that a same sex couple can do is bury their heads in the sand, hoping or assuming it’s ok not to put anything in place – that somehow, some way, it’ll all be taken care of should something go wrong.

Uh, no.

Even in the best of circumstances, what you effectively do when you don’t plan is place an enormous burden on your loved ones; the ones who have loved you and cared about you the most, and the ones you have loved and cared about the most, are going to be put in a horrific situation should something happen to you and you haven’t planned for it.  And this horrific situation, not only does it come at a time of grief for your loved ones, but it is entirely avoidable.

Some tips to get you started:

  1. With no estate plan (will, trust), you die intestate (i.e. the government decides your estate plan) and the government’s plan discriminates against same sex couples.
  2. Without powers of attorney in place, the parents who threw you out of the house when you came out could be making medical and financial decisions for you if you’re incapacitated.
  3. Being a Registered Domestic Partner in California, or married, does not change these points in their entirety.
  4. Holding your property in joint tenancy with your property will not avoid the problems here, plus they could work to DIS-inherit your children and/or cause additional problems down the line.
  5. Not choosing a guardian for your child(ren) could mean they end up in foster care should something happen to you.
  6. Without a living trust, probate fees could take up to 10% of your gross estate (your estate not taking debt into account) and take 2-3 years – if not more – to resolve.

The best way to take care of your family when you are a same sex couple is to put an estate plan in place.

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.

Retirement planning and dividing assets in California divorce

When a couple is dividing their assets in a divorce case, it’s easy to just look at the numbers on the page and divide them. For example, say we have two stock accounts. Let’s have $100,000 in each account. It can be easy to say that they each take one of the accounts and call it even. But, is it?

It could be, but it’s more likely not. If the couple has two accounts, it’s likely that they have them for a reason. For example, maybe one is intended for the long-term and one is a shorter-term investment. If the couple does not evaluate the projections of each of the accounts, one of them could be left holding the short stick.

During the divorce process, however, you can get very tired of negotiating, of waiting, and of just being in the middle of it all. Evaluating the accounts is just another step that you may think really won’t make a big difference. But ask any financial advisor – it DOES matter, and while you may not care now, you WILL later, particularly if you’re the one with the short stick.

As a couple builds their life, they make plans for their retirement. A smart plan has several components, and the couple is likely thinking not only of their own retirement, but also their children’s college expenses, when each of them will retire, and what kind of lifestyle they’re planning on. They may have compromised during the marriage, but at the divorce, each individual needs to come up with their own plan for these issues. Ensuring that the division of the assets is truly equal, and not just the same dollar figure, will be the first step.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way…

Here, I want to ask (and answer!) the question, do you need a will (and when and why). The answer, which might be surprising to you, is absolutely YES! With very few exceptions, everyone needs a will.

In my business and in this blog, I have worked hard to educate others on the importance of an estate plan centered around a living trust. A living trust avoids probate, transfers your property easily upon your death, and allows you to avoid fees and taxes (among many other reasons that you can see in my estate planning blog). But your estate plan has other components, and one of these is your will. In an estate plan, your will is called a “pour-over” will because it’s intended to ‘catch’ any property that you have left outside your estate.

Now, you may be asking, what kind of estate plan is it if you leave something out of it?! Well, sometimes we forget (despite the repeated reminders from our friendly estate planning attorney), and sometimes there’s just not time. If you acquire property and pass away before you are able to complete the transfer to your trust, then you want that will to ensure that your property transfers appropriately to your heirs through the probate process.

But in the context of family law, when and why is a will important? Let’s look at this issue in two contexts because they’re very different. First, let’s look at the time when you are going through your divorce or other family law case (where you are restricted from changing/updating your will) and once the action (case) is completed (where you NEED to update it).

The Automatic Temporary Restraining Orders (ATROs) in the Family Law Summons provide,

“Creating a nonprobate transfer or modifying a nonprobate transfer in a manner that affects the disposition of property subject to the transfer, without the written consent of the other party or an order of the court. Before revocation of a nonprobate transfer can take effect or a right of survivorship to property can be eliminated, notice of the change must be filed and served on the other party.”

What? This basically means that you cannot change your will or living trust during the pendency of your action without written consent of the other party or a court order. Note that this includes severing a joint tenancy on a property (which does not require consent but does require advance written notice). So when you are in the middle of a divorce and you pass away, that house you have in joint tenancy goes automatically to your ex. Ouch. But if you don’t know about these restrictions, then you could get into trouble with the court, which is a bad idea. Also, remember this if you’re thinking of filing for divorce.

Once your case is over, however, you really DO need to update your will. In fact, you most likely need a full estate plan that includes a living trust. Hopefully I have convinced you of that by now. If you don’t, then your out-of-date document WILL control the disposition of your assets. To look at recent examples, Brittany Murphy did not update her will when she got married. Heath Ledger never updated his will after his daughter was born (and that caused all kinds of trouble).

Don’t make their mistakes, and always make sure your estate plan is updated to take into account a marriage, divorce, birth, death, or acquisition of property.