Estate Planning for Blended families: Have step-children or a step-parent? Are you one? How to avoid (unintentionally) 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  The problem comes when one spouse dies without an estate plan, or an old or outdated one.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. Contact us today to schedule your FREE estate planning consultation.

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 (as it has been for a while now all over California) 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.

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!

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.

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.

Planning for the worst: are we doomsdayers?

Doomsdayer: one who speaks of Judgment Day or is characterized by predictions of disaster.  I was just writing about what happens when new parents find themselves in an accident and disabled…simultaneously.  The chances of this happening, I suppose, are not very great.  But the consequences if it should happen are so great that I think it is imperative to plan for it.

We have insurance for our homes, our cars, our lives, our businesses, and our health.  Other than health insurance, how often do we need that insurance?  If you weren’t required to have car insurance, would you have it?  Is it really worth it to pay monthly for a once-yearly flat tire change or jump?  How many accidents are we in yearly?  I mean individually – how many have you been in?  I have been in one in 22 years of driving.  Property insurance is another beast: the chance may be small that we lose our home to fire or earthquake or tornado or theft, but the devastation would be so complete, the insurance is well worth it. But we don’t create estate plans as a matter of course, as I think we should.  An estate plan is a kind of insurance for your family, that when you’re gone, your family and your estate, the assets you’ve worked your whole life to accumulate, will be protected.

So, why, when it comes to estate planning, do we avoid it?  We know we are all, without a doubt, going to die someday.  We know that, unless our gross estate has less than $100,000 in it (for California) – any0ne with a house, really – that our estate will go through probate.  We know that young people die every day.  We know that probate takes 2-3 to 5-6 years to complete and can cost our family, can take the inheritance from our heirs, in the amount of 8-10% of the gross estate.  We know our family will suffer having to take our estate through probate, and that creating an estate plan will avoid it entirely, give our family a painless, quick, very low cost transfer of our entire estate…and yet we put it off and put it off and put it off.

Why?

Top five excuses to avoid preparing your estate plan…

1. I don’t want to think about it. No one wants to think about getting older, becoming incapacitated, or leaving this world. We all believe that we’re going to live forever. But we’re not. In fact, we’re all going to go sometime, so denying that it’s happening at all is not going to stop it. Chances are, too, that you DO in fact think about it, and your thoughts take on the quality of worrying (if you’re not thinking about it now, believe me, you will as you get older). Worrying about it is not going to protect you and your family; only doing something – your estate plan – will stop the worry and give you peace of mind. If you’re going to be thinking about it anyway, why not just get your estate plan done?
2. I don’t have time. You might think that preparing your estate plan will take hours and hours, involve multiple meetings, and generally deprive you of family time, work time, and free time. Not so! Most of my estate plans are completed in two one-hour meetings. Yes, there are serious questions that you have to answer, but you’ve certainly already thought about most of them and they’re really not all that hard to answer anyway. All told? Two, maybe three hours total.
3. I don’t have money. If you leave your estate to probate, then your heir are not going to receive up to 10% of your gross estate, and in fact may be PAYING to transfer your property. You’ll be leaving your family tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars LESS than if you would have had an estate plan. Why wouldn’t you spend a quarter to save $100?
4. I don’t have enough money to need an estate plan. A estate with just $600,000 (think house, life insurance and some retirement) can save nearly $100,000 by creating an estate plan over going through probate. Could you stand to save $100,000? Is your family worth it?
5. I trust my family to do what’s right. Putting the decisions in the hands of your family is more of a burden than anything else. Once something happens to you, your loved ones will be shocked and grieving (you are still shocked when someone passes, even when you’re expecting it). Allow them to grieve – allow them the time and space. Don’t add to their suffering by also making them guess what you would have wanted.

What are you waiting for?