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

When I am talking to friends, colleagues and potential clients, they often tell me that they don’t need an estate plan because they don’t have enough money to reach the estate tax exemption ($5.45 million per person in 2016).  What is distressing to me is that individuals with estates worth one million dollars or less (this is the gross estate not taking into account any debt) have so much more to lose when they don’t have an estate plan in place.  Here are some reasons why:

  1. Probate fees.  If you have $150,000 in property in California – so anyone from Oakland to Livermore to San Jose to Walnut Creek with a house meets this requirement – will be headed to probate.  Probate fees cost 8-10% of your gross estate.  So if your total estate, not considering debt, comes to about $800,000, your estate could be paying up to $80,000 in probate fees.  Wouldn’t you rather that money go to your family?
  2. Probate time.  The probate process in California can take 6 years or more to complete.  During this time, your family has to deal with lawyers, court, judges, appraisers, and other strangers in their lives.  Plus, the property cannot be transferred during this time, so your family waits all these years to get access to the estate you left them.  With an estate plan, there is no delay at all.
  3. Ease of transfer.  The probate process is difficult, frustrating, time-consuming and very expensive.  Without an estate plan, you force your family to go through it at a time when they should be taking care of themselves and each other in the wake of the tremendous loss.  Generally we pick our closest family member to administer our estate.  Why wouldn’t we make that administration as easy as possible for them?
  4. Emotional difficulty of probate.  In addition to the fees, the time and the difficulty, the length of probate doesn’t allow our family members to move on after a death.  We all have our own processes for dealing with grief and death, and some take longer than others.  But the seemingly-endless probate process means that your family can’t get past the loss until the court says they can.  This allows for more time to get angry, to fight with other family members, and be held back in their own personal growth.  In life we support the growth of our families; why would we want to hold them back in death?

Come back tomorrow for the final three critical reasons you need an estate plan, even if you think you don’t!

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?

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?

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 sick and can’t speak for yourselfIf 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?

Estate planning when you don’t have children or other heirs

Most of us first think about estate planning once we have a child. We know that having a child means we have to create something to secure our children’s future should something happen to us. But what about when there are no children? I have several clients who fit this profile in various areas in the Bay Area, and I have done estate plans – created living trusts – for single and married, childless, individuals and couples in Oakland, San Ramon, Lafayette, Walnut Creek, and Pleasanton, among others.

There are a variety of different options for you if you don’t have children or other natural heirs. You can leave your estate to your siblings, parents, or other relatives, such as cousins. One client of mine set up an educational trust for her younger family members to help them to pay for college. You can use the opportunity to support a charity, as one client of mine is supporting a local animal rescue charity in her estate plan. In addition to animal charities, there are a wide variety of disease and disorder charities that are always seeking donations. Schools also will gladly accept donations in the form of bequests, so you can support a school that helped you to get where you are. One of my estate planning clients is leaving a substantial grant to UC Berkeley in their trust.

If you don’t create an estate plan and don’t have natural heirs, then your estate will go to the state. While you may not think this is too terrible, perhaps since you didn’t know exactly who to leave your money and assets to, I urge you to consider this:

1. What do you want your legacy to be? Leaving it to no one – the state – means there is no legacy at all.
2. There are so many deserving, hard-working, underfunded charities out there. Isn’t there at least one you would like to support?
3. You worked your entire life to create your estate and your legacy. Why not leave it to a cause important to you?