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.

Blended family? Children from a prior relationship? How to avoid these critical estate planning mistakes

As is common, I spoke with a potential new client today from San Ramon, and he mentioned that he and his wife had been meaning to do estate planning “for a while” and just now were getting around to it.  I don’t think anyone does it right when they think they should.  I also met with a client in Pleasanton last week, and this couple had a common family set up: one spouse had children from a previous marriage and they were concerned about estate planning.  Here are the reasons why estate planning when you have a blended family (one or both spouses have children from a prior relationship or marriage) is critical – do you really want to take the chance of dis-inheriting your children?

  1. Like my clients last weekend, many couples think they have “nothing” and therefore do not need estate planning.  The reality is that if you have $150,000 in gross property (that is, assets – a house, investments, etc. – without regard to any debt, so you can be upside down on your house and still have $150,000 in property for these purposes) in California, then when you pass, your estate will go to probate, which is a lengthy, complex, and expensive court process to resolve your estate. My belief is that anyone with a home in California needs an estate plan – and this is doubly true if you also have children. I do not charge for initial consultations, and one of the many reasons is that I believe that you must make informed decisions about what is best for your family. I don’t want to put any hurdles up in front of you getting the information you need.
  2. If you don’t choose a guardian for your children, if you cannot care for them, then the court (and a stranger in a black robe) will decide for you. In a blended family, in most cases, this will mean the other parent will get custody.  In many cases, this is not a problem because custody is shared.  In cases where it isn’t, or perhaps where the other parent lives far away, or there are other circumstances, you may want to designate someone else. For example, say you live in San Ramon and your ex lives in Montana. Your two teenagers have a good relationship with your ex but see him/her for holidays and some time in the summer.  Should something happen to  you, it might make more sense for the teens to stay with your current spouse until they reach 18, and keep some stability in home, school, friends, activities, and time with your ex.  If you don’t have a conversation about this ahead of time, however, it could turn into a mess where your children are not only grieving the loss of a parent, but also are the subject of a custody battle.  If you don’t decide? Someone else will.
  3. Do you really want to disinherit your children? Many of us somehow think we know how our lives will play out.  Many couples assume they both will live long, fruitful and healthy lives, and then the man will die first, followed not too long by the woman. In the case of a blended family where the wife is the one with children from a prior relationship, this may work well.  When the husband dies, everything goes to wife and she distributes her estate as she wishes, to her children.  But what if it doesn’t happen that way? What if something happens to wife early in life – say in her 50s – and the husband goes on to live another 30 years, remarries, and has a ‘second’ life with his new wife and family? Without estate planning, everything of the couple’s goes to the husband when the wife dies, and then 30 years later when the husband dies, there may be nothing to go to wife’s children, or husband may be estranged from them of merely closer to his wife and the family he built with his wife over 30 years.  ONLY estate planning with a living trust (i.e. not a simple will) can avoid this very real potential situation.

An estate planning attorney’s job is to make sure that you and your family, and what you want to happen with you, your family, and your estate, are protected regardless of what happens in the future.  We all love our family more than anything, so what are you waiting for to protect yours?

California divorce: Dividing debt

Since yesterday we were talking about dividing personal property in divorce, today I thought we could talk about dividing debt.  Dividing debt in divorce is a big issue these days as many couples find themselves coming away from marriages without any assets at all, and in some cases, with only debt.  There are a few issues that commonly come up when it comes to dividing debt in divorce: how to handle debt during the divorce, how to handle debt of one spouse or debt unknown to the other spouse, and how debt is handled post-divorce when one spouse agrees to service the debt but both names remain.

  1. In California, once the Petition is filed (for Petitioner) and served (for Respondent), both parties become subject to restraining orders preventing them from acquiring or disposing of property of debt other than in the “ordinary course of business.”  Basically, the parties should continue to service their debt and pay their bills as they have in the past, before the divorce was filed.
  2. The question often arises about debt one party has incurred (and the other party doesn’t want to pay) or one party’s lack of ability to pay the couple’s debt. This is both a common and a difficult situation.  The debt is most likely to be a joint debt, whether it’s a credit card or other debt, so any non-payment is going to adversely affect both  If you can pay at all?  Do pay.  Don’t harm your own credit score to get back at  your spouse – it’s not worth it.
  3. Another question that comes up is that one spouse may have incurred debt, such as credit card debt, that the other spouse is unaware of.  Unfortunately, in California, any and all property and debt acquired during the marriage is community property, and divided equally upon divorce, regardless of whether it was known to the other spouse.  There are exceptions in the case of, for example, the unknown credit card was used to pay for an extra-marital affair, but this can be hard to prove.
  4. At the end of the divorce, you and your spouse may agree to divide the bills, but in the case of a credit card, both names can remain on the card.  This means that if the payor decides not to pay or defaults, then the company is going to come after the non-paying spouse for payment.  This is unavoidable, as banks and credit card companies will go after anyone to get their payment.  Your recourse, as non-paying spouse, is to send the company a copy of the Judgment or Marital Settlement Agreement that says you are not liable for the debt, and that should be the end of it.  But you do want to make sure that your Judgment includes who pays for what debts so that you have this on hand should there be a problem in the future.

One final comment on joint debt and credit cards in divorce: once the papers are filed, unless you really need the cards, close them.  Do not allow either spouse to use the joint credit cards, because untangling that mess in the divorce, when both spouses use a joint credit card, is a nightmare.

Estate planning “musts” to take care of NOW

I often get asked what the most basic “must dos” or “must haves” are in estate planning.  Here is the answer:

  1. Talk to an estate planning attorney.  Most, like me, offer free consultations, so you don’t have to spend anything but time, and then at least you’ll know and understand your need and risks, and be able to make informed decisions
  2. Talk to a financial advisor.  See above – you only lose your time, and if you find a reputable one (your estate planning attorney should know several fantastic ones, as I do), then you can make sure that as  you grow older, you are working toward your financial goals.

Those two items will give you all the information you need.  But more specifically:

  1. If you have children, decide on and formally nominate a guardian to care for them if you are unable to.  If you don’t decide?  A judge – a stranger – will make the decision for you.
  2. Create a will or trust.  If you don’t decide who will get your stuff, someone else will.  You’ll also pay a lot of money for the privilege.  Again, talking to an estate planning attorney to find out your risks and options costs nothing.  Why remain uninformed?
  3. Make sure you have enough life insurance.  What you think of as “enough” and what is really and truly “enough” should your spouse die may be entirely different amounts.  If one spouse doesn’t work, and the working spouse dies, wouldn’t you want to have enough life insurance to allow the survivor to take time to grieve, take care of the children, and then think about work, instead of having to worry about finding work right away?
  4. Make sure your retirement and life insurance beneficiaries are always up to date.  If you’ve been married for 20 years and your life insurance names your girlfriend of 25 years ago when you pass away?  Then your girlfriend gets the money and your wife doesn’t.  Is that what you want?
  5. Make sure you have long-term care insurance if you need it.  A financial advisor can help you to decide on this, and the earlier you get it, the cheaper it is.
  6. Make sure both spouses know and understand the family finances, even if one spouse does the day-to-day management.  Do not get caught in a situation where one spouse dies and the survivor does not even know what accounts exist.
  7. On that note, put your paperwork in order, or at least in one place.  Even if it’s disorganized in a drawer, make sure all the important paperwork, account statements, estate plan, life insurance, etc. is all in one place and easy to find.  Should you pass away, your family will be going through a rough enough time as it is – don’t make it worse by leaving a scattered financial life.

None of these items are difficult or even time-consuming, but they mean everything in the world to your family should something happen to you.  What are you waiting for?

Estate planning for the digital age: what critical item most estate plans fail to include

I read a great article this morning about the failure of most estate plans to include information about computer account passwords and all of the transactions we do online on a daily basis (Estate planning for iTunes, passwords, and other digital assets). This is a great article because it highlights a problem in ‘modern’ estate planning.  A lawyer may be preparing your legal documents: your will and trust, and powers of attorney.  Your financial advisor is working with you to ensure that you have enough wealth to live out your life, and resources should you become disabled.  But who is assembling the information about your Amazon.com account (and perhaps an auto-ship of vitamins or other health care items)?  Who is ensuring that successor trustees or executors have access to online banking accounts to manage automatic payments. When you use a power of attorney (POA) to handle the finances of another, a copy of the POA goes into your file, but when you’re operating online, who is checking?

These are financial concerns, but there are also personal concerns here, too.  If a loved one of yours passed away suddenly, would you know everyone to contact? It’s likely that they have a contacts list on their computer or smartphone, but is the computer, smartphone, or even the contacts application locked? The same goes for email addresses and even Facebook. Your mom may have really taken to Facebook and rediscovered old friends from all aspects of her life.  When she passes, what do you do with that account?

In my estate plans, I always include a fillable book that can be used to record all of these kinds of information, and more.  I consider it to be my job to ensure that your whole estate and all of your affairs are taken care of when you’re finished with me. Sometimes I refer to other experts in other professions, and obviously I can’t force you to record your passwords and security codes anywhere, but I can let you know that this is a critical aspect of your estate plan, and encourage you to complete as much information as you can for your family, since the more you have available and accessible to your family when you pass, the easier it is for them. Who doesn’t want to do everything they can to make it easier for their family?

Did your estate planning attorney talk to you about estate planning for digital media?

Can a nursing home in California kick out a senior resident for being unable to pay the bill?

No – even if the nursing home is trying to convince you that they can. They cannot. But you should act quickly to take advantage of the options you have to pay for care. Give us a call at 925.307.6543 or click here to make an appointment directly using our online scheduling. We have offices all over the Bay Area for your convenience, with our main office in Dublin and satellite offices in Oakland, Walnut Creek, San Francisco, San Mateo, Palo Alto, Sunnyvale, San Rafael and Antioch.

How to save money in California divorce

Divorce can be very expensive.  Not only are you separating households, now working with the same funds but supporting two homes (and two rents/mortgages, two sets of utilities, expenses of duplicate furniture, etc…), but you may be taking time off work (unpaid, of course) for court hearings, spending money on filing fees, and – of course – hiring a lawyer.  And lawyers?  Can be very expensive.

I do what I can to keep the costs down for my divorcing clients, from offering flexible options for payment (no, not monthly payments but I generally try to “break down” the case into more financially-manageable pieces for the client), family law coaching, and divorce mediation, but the cost is not entirely under my control.  What my clients do – or don’t do – essentially drives the path and cost of the divorce.  So, regardless of whether you have an attorney or not, here are some ways to keep the costs of your divorce down:

  1. Manage your emotions.  Divorce is incredibly difficult even in the best of circumstances.  It is likely that you have some strong emotions around it.  But the court and legal process generally will not be concerned about these emotions, and the more  you bring them into your divorce, the more you will likely pay.  Whether it’s spending excessive time with your attorney discussing the emotional issues or pursuing a losing issue because of an emotional attachment, emotions can bankrupt you when they take center stage in your divorce.
  2. Get professional help. As a part of managing your emotions, get the support you need for them by finding qualified mental health professionals to help you through it.  Your lawyer, your family, and your friends will be a great support during this time, but do not mistake any of them as qualified advice helping you through the roller coaster of emotions in divorce.  Find a therapist if you need one.
  3. Get – and get rid of – qualified professional help when appropriate.  Hire professionals who are going to work with you, for you, and who are on the same page as you.  If you feel like your lawyer doesn’t care, or is gouging you, or won’t pay attention to you or return your calls, then get rid of him/her.  Your divorce is yours, and you should have legal counsel that you feel comfortable with, who understands what is important to you, and who is reasonable and professional about fees.  Same with your therapist.
  4. Play fair.  The court and legal process in California has no patience for bids for revenge.  Mud-slinging and nasty declarations for the purpose of hurting the other party can not only rebound and hurt you, but can cost you unbelievable amounts of money.  They also drag on the process, increase the hostility between you and your spouse, and ultimately hurt your children.