The importance of the Nomination of Guardian: Who cares for your children when you cannot

Say you’ve gone out to dinner with your friends or your spouse or your new beau. The kids are at home with the babysitter, someone you trust but who’s just a teenager. On your way home, the road is wet  and you get into a car accident. When you’re taken to the hospital, unconscious, the police are going to go to your house to check on your children. When there’s nothing in writing saying who should take your children in the event you are incapacitated (I recommend posting this on the refrigerator), then the police will take your children. The Nomination of Guardian can prevent this.

Your Nomination of Guardian states who you want to care for your children if you are not able to. It can be temporary, such as after an accident, or permanent, such as if you pass away. It is critical to have so that you do not have a gap of time in which your children are taken to the police station and sent out to foster homes until the situation resolves itself.

In the case of a divorce or other child custody case, it takes on a new significance because now there are two households involved. BOTH parents should have a custody and visitation agreement readily accessible to them and their child caregivers, and the agreement should be as specific as possible – even if the couple is agreeing and cooperating with each other – to break the “tie” in the event of a dispute. If the agreement/order says, “visitation as the parents agree,” then the police will not enforce that vague order. With a nomination of guardian, if the couple has already chosen one, both parties have to (1) understand that the other parent will be the guardian if something happens to them (unless there are issues of substance abuse, domestic violence, or some other issue that limits custody/parenting time for one parent), and (2) that the person the couple picked when they were a couple might not continue to be appropriate. Because the couple is now separated, there is a significantly lesser chance that they will die together, but that doesn’t mean a nomination of guardian is less important. Each parent needs to decide who THEY think will be the most appropriate person, and create a document memorializing that.

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 Dublin, California, 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?

Painful estate planning questions you must answer to avoid disastrous estate planning mistakes

Many of my estate planning clients have put off their estate planning for months, and even years sometimes. Part of this is because death or disability is something we don’t want to think about, and part of it is because some of the questions are difficult to answer.  What my clients do not always understand is that (1) it’s my job to help them to make the decisions, and (2) if they don’t decide, then someone else – a stranger – will decide for them. Here are some questions you need to consider when thinking about estate planning:

  1. The guardian for your children. This is probably the most important decision you will make.  In case the unthinkable happens – you and your spouse are out together on date night and get into an accident and are both hospitalized or worse. What do you think will happen to your children, who are at home with the 19-year old neighbor babysitting? The police will likely take your children into protective custody – foster care – until a proper guardian is named.  If you have a formally-named guardian in your estate planning documents (and not some hastily-written page), then you can avoid this awful experience for your children.
  2. Who will get your stuff. If you don’t decide who gets your stuff, the state will. And perhaps more importantly than the couch and the jewelry is the estate itself.  Do you have minor children? Do you want them to inherit hundreds of thousands of dollars when they reach 18? Do you perhaps want to hold back some of the estate to pay for college, or at least to let them mature a little before coming into (and losing) a great deal of money right at 18? The only want to do this is through trusts.
  3. What do you want the doctors to do if you are in an irreversible comaIf you don’t decide how you want the doctors to treat you and what extraordinary measures will be taken to save your life, then the doctors will endeavor to keep you alive as long as they can.  Do you want to survive by machine alone? If not, then you need to tell someone!  Tell your parents and your children, and create a power of attorney that legally records your wishes.  If you don’t do this, you could cause your family to scramble to determine what YOU would have wanted.
  4. Who will help you to manage your assets and estate if you can’t? Most of us are more likely to experience a slow decline than go out with a bang.  Because of the advances in medical and health care, we are living longer and with better-quality lives. But as we slow down, there is a chance that we will start to lose our ability to pay our bills and manage our finances.  To avoid the painful, time-consuming and expensive process of conservatorship, each of us needs to designate someone to make decisions on our behalf if we become unable to.  This is relevant to individuals of all ages, as surviving traumatic brain injuries is getting more and more common.
  5. Where are your documents? Part of creating your estate plan in making sure everything is in one place: your will, trust(s), powers of attorney, bank/investment/life insurance/retirement statements, pre-need funeral planning documents, and passwords/keys/online account information.  There is nothing worse than making your grieving family rummage through your stuff to find what they need.

Estate planning is the last thing that you can do for your family to make your passing easier. Isn’t your family worth it?

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?

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?

Your child’s guardian in a divorce: how to choose and what to do when you and your ex don’t agree

One of the most important ways to protect your family in the event of an emergency is to name a guardian for your children if you pass away before they turn 18. You need to choose who will care for them, because if you don’t, then the court decides. But what happens in a divorce? How do you pick someone when your ex is still in the picture?

The reality is that, in most cases, your ex will get guardianship of your child should you pass away, as your ex is still the other parent of your child. In some cases, this doesn’t happen, though, such as when there is a history of violence, substance abuse, a criminal history, or mental illness. In that case, you should make sure that you have it specified in your estate plan that you do not want your ex to become your child’s guardian, and why. You may not be able to get around it, but at least you can make your wishes known.

But this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t choose someone. After all, your ex could pass away before you do, and if you don’t choose someone (or don’t “get around to it”), then, again, the state will decide for you, without your input. Another important estate planning issue is who will manage the assets that you leave to your children. You may not want to leave them in the care of your ex, or perhaps the ex’s new spouse. I have an estate planning client in San Ramon who is very concerned about leaving assets within reach of the husband’s new wife! So you should consider a separate money manager or other options to ensure your money is safe and goes where you want it to – to your child.

The bottom line is that estate planning issues are critical in divorce, and must be taken care of once the divorce has finished.

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.