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.

When to update your estate plan

I am often asked when an estate plan should be updated, and in fact I have written on it before.  But it is important to revisit from time to time, particularly when there are new estate laws as there are now.  In general terms, an estate plan should be reviewed in two instances:

  1. Each time there has been a birth, death, marriage, divorce, acquisition or disposition of property or a business in the family, and
  2. Every 1-2 years.

By “review” I don’t mean we need to dig up the binder (you do have a binder, right?), and pore over it, page by page.  No.  What I mean is that we need to think about what is in our estate plan.  You should know it in detail because your lawyer explained it so well to you during the process!  So, you want to review who your beneficiaries are, and whether the property distribution you’ve selected still is appropriate.  You want to review who is your successor trustee/executor, as well as who acts as your agent on your powers of attorney.  Have you changed your mind about your advance directive?  These are the questions you should ask yourself, and it really should not take more than 20-30 minutes.  Go through any changes in your family, and see if those changes, or anything else that has happened in the last year or two, make you want to change your estate plan.

In addition, if you have created your estate plan in the last five years, you may want to contact an estate planning attorney now to make sure your estate plan is still the most appropriate for you given the new laws and tax exemption.

In any event, if you have an estate plan that was created before 2008, or powers of attorney created before 2003, you really need to get an update, or at least an opinion on whether an update is necessary.  I don’t know about other estate planning attorneys, but I don’t charge for an estate plan review, even for those estate plans I’ve not created myself.  So what do you have to lose?

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?

Is estate planning obsolete? Think again!

I have heard rumblings that estate planning is no longer necessary because the estate tax exemption is at $5 million, so only those with more than that need to do any estate planning.  Here are the reasons why they are dead wrong:

  1. Probate costs. When you don’t have an estate plan and you have $150,000 in property in California, your estate goes through the process of probate, which can cost your estate tens of thousands of dollars in unnecessary fees.  Creating a living trust avoids probate.
  2. Probate time/length.  The probate process can also take several years to complete, leaving your heirs in a state of limbo when you’re gone.
  3. Powers of attorney.  Even if your estate does not reach the $150,000, everyone 18 and over needs to have powers of attorney to determine who will make medical decisions on their behalf, have access to their medical records, and handle their finances should they become incapacitated.  Parents do not automatically have this right, which is why anyone 18 or over needs to have these documents.
  4. Distributing your estate to whom you want.  If you do not create an estate plan outlining who gets your estate, the government has an estate plan for you, and it may not be to your liking.  YOU have the choice and responsibility to determine who gets your estate, but if you don’t make the decision, then someone else will.
  5. Disinheriting heirs in a blended family.  If you have a family with step-children, you could easily dis-inherit them by leaving all of your property to your spouse (a common non-plan estate plan).  If your spouse inherits everything you have when you pass away, because you hold title to your property in joint tenancy, then your spouse will have control over how to distribute the estate at the second spouse’s death, which could very likely end up with your biological children getting nothing.
  6. Naming a guardian for your children.  Once you have children, it is imperative to name a guardian for them.  If you don’t, then a judge who has never met you, your children, or your family will get to decide.  In this case, anyone can petition to become your children’s guardian, and without naming someone, you open up the very real possibility of your children becoming the subject of a lengthy and nasty custody battle when you’re gone.
  7. Planning for your elder years and death.  Medical advances have led to longer lives, but this has also meant that we spend a longer period of time in decline, where we may need care.  We need to plan for that time and for that care while we are still healthy, and by getting our affairs in order, we can accomplish this.
  8. Having dignity in your last years.  When we don’t plan for our decline, then we can find ourselves caught off-guard and without the means or ability to take care of ourselves.  In that case, we may become dependent – or worse, burdensome – on others, generally our family.  Many of us would rather decide in advance how we want to handle our aging: where we want to live, who we want to care for us, how we want to be cared for.  If we don’t plan, then we get stuck with whatever is available.
  9. Saving your family untold grief.  Anyone who has experienced the decline of a loved one understands the difficulty in making caregiving decisions and end of life decisions, not to mention the passing of the estate.  By creating a comprehensive estate plan, we save our families from having to make impossible decisions at every turn.  At a time when family should be able to take the time to grieve and band together, too often there are many decisions to be made and fighting over what’s “best” or what you would have wanted.  These are YOUR decisions to make.  Shouldn’t YOU make them?

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Celebrities and estate planning

There are frequent examples of famous names and faces that pass away, leaving us with reminders of the importance of estate planning at all ages.  In recent weeks:

  1. The importance of planning young: Sarah Burke.  We all think that we’re going to live forever.  I think this is part of human nature.  We also think that, if we’re healthy, then we will be healthy forever.  Unfortunately, accidents and illnesses happen to the young and to the healthy, as the death of 29-year old Olympic skier Sarah Burke tells us. If you don’t have a medical power of attorney in place, you don’t choose who will be making the decisions on your behalf.  If you don’t have a living will (part of the power of attorney for medical decisions in California), then your family doesn’t know what your wishes are.
  2. The importance of a power of attorney: Etta James.  When Etta James died, her family was in the midst of a conservatorship battle.  A conservatorship is the formal title of the person given legal rights to make decisions on behalf of your estate/assets and of your medical decisions.  If you have a power of attorney, in most cases a conservatorship is not necessary.  Etta James’ husband had conservatorship over the singer, and in just late December, asked the court to release $500,000 for her monthly medical care, the cost of which was $30,000.  The court released $350,000.  Because of concern over her medical care and the cost, her two sons petitioned the court to change the conservatorship over to them.  The last thing you want your family to have to contend with when you are gravely ill is an issue such as this.  If you make plans ahead of time, you and your family will both be protected.
  3. The importance of planning, period: Steig Larsson. The author of the widely successful “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” trilogy died suddenly of a heart attack at age 50. He had no will.  While his estate went to his family members, his girlfriend of 32 years has possession of a fourth unpublished manuscript, and the legal battle rages on.

Whatever you age, size of estate, or health status, you need an estate plan to protect yourself and your loved ones.  Why wait?  Make a FREE appointment online now.