Don’t overlook these important estate planning concerns in divorce

When you get a divorce in California (and everywhere else!), there are important estate planning considerations to take into account.  In fact, these are so critical that you could end up leaving your estate to your ex spouse (ouch!), having your ex make important medical decisions for you, or – if you act hastily and without the proper information – you could get into trouble with the court system.

During Divorce:  First, when you file for divorce in California, regardless of whether it’s Alameda County, Contra Costa County, or any other county, once the other party is served, both of you become restrained from doing certain things.  One of these restraining order involves your will or trust, and prohibits you from making any changes to your will or trust once you’ve filed for divorce and served the other party.  One of the others prohibits either of you from changing or cancelling any insurance, such as life, health, auto/property, etc., or changing the beneficiaries on any insurance or other account where a beneficiary is named.  Do not make the mistake of cancelling your ex’s health insurance or changing your will after you have filed for divorce!

You may make these changes with permission from the other party or with a court order, and you may want to seek this.  Particularly if you have separate property, the last thing you want is for your ex to get it all if something happens to you. You may also want to get permission to change the beneficiary of your life insurance into a trust for your children, but you need permission for both of these actions.

One of the changes that you should make as soon as you can, and there is no court prohibition on this, is your powers of attorney.  For both health and finances, you want to make sure you designate someone other than your ex who will make decisions for you and manage your affairs should you become incapacitated.  If you’re lying in a hospital bed unconscious, do you really want your ex deciding whether to get surgery or wait to see if the medication improves your condition?

After Divorce:  Once your divorce is final, you want to make sure you change your will or trust, your powers of attorney (if you’ve not done so already), the beneficiaries on your life insurance, retirement and other accounts, and make sure you have enough life insurance for your children and long-term care insurance to care for yourself as you get older.

Need more help?  Click here for our FREE Divorce e-Course.

Part two: So, imagine you’re going to die tonight. What would happen?

Here is part two of the depressing series about what happens when you die.  I read this fantastic article, What Would Happen if you Died Tonight, and thought I would put my own spin on it, though it does a great job of laying out the issues.

We all know that we need to do some kind of estate planning, but many of us don’t know what, or how, or even how to find help.  We also know that we don’t really want to think about it, so all of these obstacles can add up to just not doing anything.  Are you one of those who has no plan in place?  Well, then this is the article for you.

What would happen if you died tonight?  What would happen to your children?  Who would care for them?  Would you have several family members fighting for that right and responsibility?  Does your estate have enough money in it to care for your children’s financial upbringing, or will your children be a financial burden on their new caregivers, too?

How about your assets?  Would they be tied up in probate for years because you did not create an estate plan?  Would you put your loved ones through that time, money, hassle and stress because you couldn’t find time to put a trust into place?  Who would get your stuff?  Is there an heirloom ring that your children will fight over because they don’t know who should have it?  Will your family be torn apart by the stress and grief of your passing, and all of the responsibilities and burdens you left for them?

These may seem like drastic and overly-dramatic questions, but if you have ever experienced the death of a loved one, or known someone who has, you know that these are very real considerations.  What would it really be like if you died tonight?  Would you have put your affairs in order to protect your loved ones?  Or will you make them figure it out on their own?

The first in a two-parter: What you need to know but wish you didn’t

I recently read an article entitled, How Doctors Die, and was struck by its simplicity and elegance.  Also, I was struck by how doctors know what they want and don’t want, clearly, because they aren’t afraid to face death, the inevitability of it, and the need for anticipation and planning.  Tomorrow, we’ll talk about another article I read recently, What Would Happen if you Died Tonight, and how we can better plan for our own inevitable demise.  But today, let’s start with the cheery subject of the end of life decisions doctors make, and how we (unfortunately) differ.

First, they plan.  Necessarily, as a doctor, they see and comprehend in a way us regular folk cannot (except perhaps funeral directors) that death is inevitable. Not only that, and perhaps more importantly, they understand that not planning very likely means that things will happen to you and around you that you do not ever want to happen.  Procedures will be done to you that you would have refused if you could have, your family will suffer more than they should, you will suffer in pain and illness more than  you would choose to, and your estate (your money, your assets) will be in a tangled mess, causing more hardship on your family than you would ever have wanted.

We don’t want to think about death – no one does – but the reality is inevitable.  We don’t have a choice about that.  What we DO have a choice about is how we handle it, the dignity we grant ourselves, the burdens and responsibilities (or lack thereof) we leave to our loved ones, and the mess (or lack thereof) we leave to our loved ones.  If we have these choices, and it’s really the only choices we have in our anticipation of death, then why don’t we take advantage of them?

Second, doctors know of and learn from our mistakes.  It can be hard to acknowledge our own mortality unless and until we either experience serious illness or we see it in one of our loved ones.  But we can learn from their wisdom, and we don’t have to necessarily experience it to benefit from what they see.  Illness, accidents, & terrible diagnoses don’t generally come with advance warning and the ability to prepare.  They come on suddenly, shockingly, and require grave decisions to be made, sometimes quite quickly.  But the best time to make a decision is when you are calm and able to think all of the issued out.  The worst time?  When you’re facing a life or death situation.

The bottom line is that planning is essential to ensure that you are cared for in the way you want to be, and that you do not put unnecessary burden on your loved ones.  If you knew what the burden would be when it came time, you would definitely choose to plan ahead.  Why wait until it’s too late?

Who needs an estate plan? Top 7 reasons why you need one even if you think you don’t. Part II:

Last time, we talked a little bit about the top reasons why you may need an estate plan, even if you think you don’t.  Here are the last three reasons.

  1. Your children’s guardian.  Have children?  Have you named their guardian?  Is this document posted prominently in your house in case it’s needed?  If you don’t decide on your guardian, the court will.  The court doesn’t know you, your children, your family, or who you think would be most appropriate (or, conversely, who would NOT be appropriate).  You may not have decided on someone, but you’ve probably eliminated some candidates.  When you name no one, no one knows who you have eliminated, as the job is up for grabs to anyone.  Name your preferences or your very last choice could very well raise your children.
  2. Your child’s guardian, part two.  What happens if you’re in an accident and you and your spouse go to the hospital?  Will the police leave your children with the underage babysitter?  No, of course not. If you have not chosen a guardian, and posted that prominently (and told the babysitter), then the police are going to take your children to the police station.  They may very well put your children into foster care while you recover.  While the chance this would happen may be slim, why take the chance?
  3. Other documents necessary.  If you don’t have an estate plan, you’re less likely to have powers of attorney, a living will/advance directive, and other necessary estate planning documents.  These documents generally help you when you become incapacitated and cannot make decisions on your own behalf.  Often a spouse is your first choice, but what happens if your spouse is also incapacitated?  You need to prepare these documents to protect yourself and your wishes from being honored if you can’t speak for yourself.
Convinced?

So you have a living trust! Congratulations…now here’s some tips on what to do with it

Where to keep it, when to update it, and what to do with it:

o Keep your estate plan in your house, accessible to your family. If it’s in a safe deposit box when something happens to you, your family may not be able to get to it.
o Tell your family, and particularly your successor trustee, where your estate planning documents are located.
o Keep a copy (it does not have to be executed; I give my clients a blank copy) in a safe place, such as a safe deposit box in case your original is destroyed or lost.
o Review your estate plan each time there is a major life event in your family, such as a birth, death, marriage, or divorce. Also review it if you’ve bought or disposed of real property.
o Barring major life events, review your estate plan every two-to-three years to make sure it still reflects what you want. You can spend 15 minutes skimming through the summary sections to ensure you don’t want to change anything.
o Give your power of attorney for health care decisions and living will to your agent (the one who will be making decisions for you), and if it’s your spouse, also give one to the successor agent.
o Give your power of attorney for health care decisions and living will to your doctor(s) for your file, to the hospital if you have one you would go to in an emergency, and to your pharmacist.
o Give your power of attorney for your property to your agent or successor agent as well as to the institutions they will likely be dealing with, such as your bank, your financial advisor, or other account managers.
o Give your named guardian and conservator the nomination documents and make sure all caregivers know about them and how to find the documents in an emergency.
o TALK to your family about your wishes, your plans, and who you have designated as agent, conservator, and guardian.

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!

Your pending California divorce case: What to do with your will

I have been thinking more about my posting about your will, and I felt it needed more to make it complete. Specifically, IF you have a divorce case currently, what can you do NOW to protect yourself and your children? Divorce cases can last for years. Yes, unfortunately this is true, so we have to hope for the best (a speedy and as-painless-as-possible case) and plan for the worst (an endless case). So if you have a case and the ATROs (see last week’s post about what these are) prevent you from changing your will (or estate plan), here are some things you can do.

First, take advantage of the ability to sever joint tenancy (JT). The ATROs allow you to sever joint tenancy with simply NOTICE to the other party. Sever this JT and should something happen to you, you have the ability to give your half of any real property (a house, for example) to someone other than your estranged spouse.

Second, have a conversation. If you have a lawyer, your lawyer might be telling you never to talk to your estranged spouse. I disagree with this family law case philosophy because (as one of our local judges used to say) YOU are in the best position to come to a resolution of your case. If you stop talking to each other, then hostility can grow and you may be likely to fight more. Now, this approach works well for the lawyer, who gets to funnel ALL of your issues at $450 an hour! It’s better on you, your relationship, your pocketbook, and your case if you’re able to talk to each other. Talk about changing your will so each of you can make an estate plan that provides for your own property to go to the individuals you choose instead of each other.

Third, if you can’t have an informal conversation, bring it up in a formal setting. Whether it’s a meeting with your lawyers, a court conference, or if you add it to the issues to be raised at a hearing, make time to discuss these issues so they’re at least out in the open.

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.

Estate planning, the Forbes Guide

Don’t believe me when I talk about the importance of estate planning, for everyone?  Here is the Forbes Guide to Estate Planning, which echoes much of what I have said in my various posts, and even includes a guide to estate planning “on the cheap”!

Avoid these shortcuts in estate planning and save your assets, protect your family, and leave a legacy

We’re all looking to save money and get our to do list done as quickly and easily as possible.  But when it comes to estate planning, quick and cheap shortcuts can end up not only costing you in the long run, but can hurt both your family and your legacy.

For example, if you decide to forego an estate plan for your real property, and instead opt for joint tenancy, then you are at best just delaying the probate process, and at worst exposing your home to complete loss in your lifetime. With joint tenancy, there may not be any need for probate or transfer proceedings at the death of the first spouse (just some simple) paperwork, at the death of the survivor, the property goes into probate, which can take years and cost up to 10% of the gross estate value, which can be in the tens of thousands of dollars even for estates with just a house – even one with substantial debt.  Putting a child on title to the property does not solve this problem, and can lead to your child’s creditors seizing the house, the inability to undo the transfer at a later date when needed, a loss of control over the disposition of the house, more complications in transfer at the survivor’s death, and more.

Another shortcut is either being incomplete or too vague in your estate plan documentation.  If you have a living trust, it must be funded completely.  It does not serve you or anyone else to leave “just that one account” outside the trust since it ‘has so little in it.’  Why leave a small account – or a large one – outside the trust and make it more difficult for your family to transfer it? It’s possible then that the bank will just get your money since it will be too much trouble to transfer the account outside the trust.  In addition, if you have provisions for the distribution of your estate, make sure you have alternate provisions in case your beneficiaries do not outlive you.  For example, if you are leaving everything to your children, make sure you have a provision for who gets your estate if the airplane goes down and you all pass at the same time.

There are a lot of aspects of estate planning that can easily be completed improperly, costing you, your family, and the estate you worked your life to build. Estate planning is not the place to look for a quick or cheap solution, but rather to take the time to ensure that all you’ve worked for is left just the way you want it.