CBGD NetworkCBGD Network

  Estate Planning
Start Page | Caregivers Case Histories | Features and Glossary | Network Support Groups

I have done estate planning work for over 30 years. For the first 17 years, it was all theoretical. It was what my grandfather called “book learning. None of my clients ever died. This was understandable since many of my clients were younger, and death was far off.

In the last 15 years, it has changed. The estate planning I do today is not based on theory or classroom training, it is built on real life experience. Until someone actually uses the strategies and appropriate documents that make up a major part of their estate plan, it is just a stack of papers. However, when the time comes to put them in force, they become so important.

In the past few days, I have personally sat with my own family as we sorted through these critical documents for my very ill mother. Forgive me for the personal references, but today they are the best teacher of the essentials of estate planning that I can pass on to my readers.

My mother died just after midnight on Jan. 4. The events, both before and now after her death, have again taught me the value of proper planning. About eight years ago she and I had a heart-to-heart talk about her plans. She had a very modest estate and saw little need to do much planning. Luckily, I convinced her otherwise.

As a single woman, she needed planning more than when she was married.. There was no spouse to pass things to by right of title. Her family, my brother and sisters and I faced a certain probate and many other problems if she did not set things up correctly. How grateful we are that she did the planning.

Mom’s health had been declining for several months but after Christmas it accelerated. In a hastily scheduled medical appointment, her physician immediately hospitalized her. She had congestive heart and kidney failure compounded by pneumonia. He couldn’t imagine how she had made it through the big family Christmas gathering at her home just a few days before. This annual family event was so important to her. I imagine she was toughing it out on grit and determination only to plummet afterward. Her condition worsened. Everyone knew where she kept her important papers, but now they were critically needed. initially three documents came immediately into play. The first was her “health care power of attorney.” Although she was fairly alert when initially entering the hospital, she quickly lost most of her cognitive powers. My sister, who lives close by, was given the power to make all medical decisions. She produced the document and the medical staff never questioned her authority.

Mom also had completed a “living will.” This document basically stated her wishes, to be allowed, if it came to that, to die without artificial, life-prolonging assistance. I remember our extensive discussion about this matter. She was vehement about it. She did not want to be kept alive by a machine. She felt it was demeaning and too expensive to only prolong the natural events of life.

The ‘living will” implementation was not as easy however as we wanted. Controversy arose when the physicians posed different treatments. There was some confusion as to what was considered life prolonging versus life saving. It is terribly important to be certain of the difference in the two. After the facts were out, several treatments were used that met mom’s wishes.

The third document that was immediately used was a “durable power of attorney.” There were bills to be paid and other expenses. Mom never wanted anyone to know about her assets. She was funny that way but also normal, by most standards. Again, my sister had been given the power of attorney. She went to the banks, and they almost immediately honored the document. Business life goes on even when health problems change everyday living.

Each of these documents served a valuable purpose as each was implemented. Now our family has moved to the next stage. The legality and use for the first three documents is finished. Now her ‘revocable living trust” goes to work. Actually, since she has died, it is no longer revocable. It is a valid trust and expressed mom’s wishes from the date of her death and beyond.

The next phase of her estate plan deals with the orderly distribution of her assets. Since her assets were quite modest, you may be thinking that a living trust was overkill. This is not true. Like all families, there are members who have different needs and financial abilities. A trust not only circumvents the expensive probate and legal oversight, it also allows for the special needs of any family member.

It will take some time to finish all the work ahead. Decisions regarding personal effects and furniture are necessary. Real estate values need to be established and decisions regarding a possible sale. IRA, saving and checking accounts, life insurance policies and pension and Social Security benefits all must now be coordinated with the trust. I expect it to go rather smoothly thanks to the estate planning and clarity of the trust document.

Thousands of dollars and countless hours of work will be saved because she Implemented the estate planning documents outlined for her years ago.

My mom has been In this column before. You recall she was the lady who had all her Christmas shopping done by Labor Day, She was a special person to me. Thanks to her, my family can focus on the legacy she left to the world of her children, grandchildren and great-grand children and not on the bickering about her assets. She put it in writing.
Where appropriate, it was correctly witnessed or notarized. We will miss her deeply, but her love for all of us was demonstrated again by relieving her family of problems. This was her lifelong pattern, and she was true to it to the end.

Thanks Tom for putting it all in perspective.