Articles Posted in Family Issues

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nostalgia-499988_640Estate planning is often motivated by the big things. I’m not getting philosophical here. Forget about life and death. On a practical level, what brings families into my office are often the big financial assets–the house, the brokerage accounts, the retirement assets, and a concern that these assets be shared equitably by loved ones. And I, like most estate planners, do my best to write trusts and Wills that do just that.

But, often, it is the little things that can become contentious after a parent dies. From Dad’s stamp collection, to (I kid you not) a parent’s lawnmower, I’ve seen families fight over things that weren’t even on their loved one’s radar when the estate plan was written. Somehow these physical object (in legalese this stuff is known as ‘tangible personal property’) can become the locus of much hurt feeling and much passion, seemingly to become imbued with a deceased person’s essence, or to evoke their memories in a way that money cannot.

Often, fights over tangible personal items becomes especially fraught when there are multiple marriages, with a surviving spouse and children of prior marriages sparring over a loved one’s personal items. I’ve been thinking of this a lot lately because of Robin Williams.  Less than six months after his death, his third wife and his children from his first and second marriages are involved in litigation over alleged ambiguities in what seems, from a distance, to be a well-drafted and thoughtful estate plan. As reported in the New York Times, here’s some of what they are fighting about:

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shutterstock_128072579The New York Times published an interesting story this weekend on the expectations that parents and children have with respect to inheritances. The article summarized a study published in The Gerontologist last year, in which older adults and their children were polled on whether or not they expected to leave or inherit an inheritance.

It turns out that 86.2% of the parents expected to leave their children something, but only 44.6% of the kids were expecting to receive anything.  Interestingly, the adult children who were getting money from their parents during life had a higher expectation about getting more after their parents died than did children who were not receiving such support. Even more interesting, adult children who were providing support for their elderly parents were less likely to expect an inheritance, even though their parents were more likely to leave one. (The article doesn’t say what ‘support’ means here and whether it was financial or more in the realm of help with daily living.)

Psychologists opine that older adults feel morally obligated to provide for their adult children, partly out of concern for their children’s ability to maintain a similar standard of living, given the decline in earning power, and partly out of a sense that family matters most.

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headlamp-2940_150This week, an elderly driver lost control of his car and crashed into a cafe on University Avenue in Palo Alto, injuring six, including himself. News reports say that the driver was trying to park, and accidentally hit the gas pedal instead of the brake pedal.

As we, or our parents, age, the question of when someone should stop driving is almost certain to come up.  While it is true that impaired driving isn’t always a factor of age, it is also true that as we age our reactions slow, our vision declines, our hearing decreases, our flexibility and strength decline, cognitive and decision making ability changes, and our judgment about our ability to drive isn’t always objective.

Sometimes people can recognize their decline and voluntarily decide to stop driving. Sometimes family and friends have to step in and question whether or not it’s safe for someone to continue to drive. It is difficult for both the older driver and the family to discuss this issue, but the literature repeatedly warns families NOT to postpone the conversation because it is difficult or unpleasant. Instead, they should focus on safety and preventing accidents.

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account-1778_150Losing your spouse is hard enough. But some surviving spouses also discover that they lose their ability to get credit  as well.  This is because they have no independent credit history since all of the couple’s credit cards and loans were in the name of the deceased spouse.

For many women, in particular, this can be a shocking discovery. But if a woman did not work outside the home, never had a credit card in her own name, and has no record of an independent income, she runs the risk of having her credit cards cancelled after the death of her spouse, or loans denied, even if she’s been well provided for and has enough income to live comfortably.

In 2011, new federal rules actually made it harder for non-working spouses to get credit cards, because it required credit card companies to look at an individual’s own salary and income (and not the household’s income) to decide whether or not they qualified. This caused so much trouble, that the rules were changed, and now credit card companies can consider the household’s income for anyone over 21 years old who applies for credit.

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treasure-160004_150Today, I was reading a trust written in the late 1990’s. In it, the Grantor made a gift to her grandchildren that was to be equal to the Generation Skipping Transfer (GST) tax exemption. This is the amount of money that a person can give to someone, like a grandchild, who is more than 37.5 years younger than the donor, without having to pay a separate tax that is equal to the maximum gift/estate tax, or 40%, on the transfer.

Back then, that GST exemption was a bit more than $1 million. So, my client was making a gift to her three grandchildren of $1 million, divided into equal thirds. So far, so good.

Skip ahead to today. The current GST exemption is $5.34 million! Suddenly a generous gift from grandmother would give everything to the grandchildren, and nothing to my client’s two sons. This is not what my client intended to do.

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Lately, I’ve had a lot of questions from clients about life insurance policies and who to name as beneficiaries. Here’s what I tell most people to do:

Name YOUR TRUST as the beneficiary (if you have a trust)


Name YOUR SPOUSE as the beneficiary (if you don’t have a trust, but do have a spouse)
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The tragic case of the Oakland twelve-year old girl, declared brain dead after a routine surgery by the hospital, and her parent’s plea to keep her connected to a ventilator nonetheless, reminds me yet again of the value and importance of completing an Advance Health Care Directive.  

This document allows you to name agents to act on your behalf with respect to health care decisions and to state your wishes for end of life care. 

In the immediate case, of course, the girl was a minor, and would not have been able to make her own advance health care directive, so it is her parents who are making those choices for her. For the rest of us, this case is a cautionary tale–it is important to let people know what your choices would be at the end of life if you are not going to be able to communicate your wishes yourself, otherwise you won’t have any control over how that decision gets made.

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It is a sad fact that elderly adults can fall victim to abuse, often at the hands of a family member or trusted friend or employee. The California State Bar estimates that one in seven seniors suffer some form of physical, financial, or psychological abuse.

Some common forms of financial elder abuse include:

Misuse of a Durable Power of Attorney: a person convinces a senior to sign a power of attorney, then uses that document to withdraw money from that person’s bank or brokerage accounts or to open fradulent credit cards in that senior’s name.

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If you are in the midst of a divorce proceeding, or have been divorced (which means about fifty percent of married couples according to the American Psychological Association) you’ve got some estate planning to do, or re-do. Here are a few of the most important things that you should know:

If you are in the process of divorcing, you are still legally married. The Family Code restricts your power to transfer assets until the two of you work out a property settlement and the divorce is final.

Make sure your estate documents do not give your almost ex-spouse power over you or your estate to the extent that you can.

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london metroIt’s summer time! I’m off for a two week vacation, and taking the kids (for better or worse). But, if you are planning to go away and leave the kids behind (because you are smarter than I am), please remember to leave a Parental Medical Release Form behind as well. You’ve signed a milion of these for school field trips, but it’s easy to forget this item on your endless pre-vacation to-do list.

However, you, as parents, have legal authority to authorize medical and dental care under California law, and may authorize, in writing, an adult into whose care you’ve placed a minor, to consent to medical or dental care, or both. Without such consent, a doctor cannot treat a minor, which explains why you’ve signed so many school field trip forms.

Please click on the link above to get a Parental Medical Release From. Print it out and put it on your fridge. And have a nice trip.