Michigan Probate Attorney Andrew Mayoras has written in his blog, The Probate Lawyer Family Feud Blog, details of yet another celebrity death, this time Walter Cronkite. As Andrew notes, one of the big drawbacks to relying on a will (instead of a trust) is that wills must pass through probate court and are public documents. They can be read by anyone.
So anytime a celebrity dies without leaving all of his or her assets in a trust and/or joint tenancy, it gives the press something to write a story about.
The New York Post recently published an article about the final wishes of the late, great broadcaster Walter Cronkite who died on July 17, 2009 at age 92. You can read it here.
It is reported that Cronkite left most of assets (believed to be worth millions) to his children and aides from CBS. His August, 2005 will excluded his girlfriend, Joanna Simon (sister of singer Carly Simon). It appears he was very generous to Simon during life, but didn’t want to name her in his will out of respect for his wife of nearly 65 years, who passed in 2005.
As Mr. Mayoras notes, the best thing about probate court — with its publicity, added expense, and breeding ground for family disputes — is that it can be avoided. Walter Cronkite is not alone in subjecting his family to probate court when he easily could have bypassed it with a properly funded revocable living trust.
While his family hopefully won’t have to make multiple trips to court, like Michael Jackson’s family has been forced to do, he certainly had more than enough money to avoid this common estate planning
mistake. In fact, revocable living trusts make sense for most people — millionaires or not.
Becoming a dad is the ultimate step into adulthood. It simply doesn’t
get more real than that, does it? That little face looking up at you
makes you realize that life isn’t just about you anymore. Suddenly,
you are responsible for the well-being and care of a little person who
is totally reliant on you. And in some ways, this new “mini-you” that
has come into the world makes you feel immortal.
On the flip side though is the lurking
thought “what will happen to mini-me if something happens?” If you are
like most people (69%), you push away the thought because it’s too
scary to contemplate your child being raised by anyone besides you.
But, here’s the thing … if you aren’t
willing to take the time and invest the energy in setting things up for
your little one (and her mom) the right way, you will leave your family
with a world of hurt if something happens to you.
The good news is that setting things up
the right way and doing the right thing by your family doesn’t have to
be as painful as you think it will be. If you are in the know about
what you need and how to get it taken care of, getting your personal
affairs in order can even be downright enlightening.
Let’s start with the bare minimum of what
every dad needs to have in place to make life as easy for his kids and
their mom if anything happens.
Document Set #1: Kids Protection Plan
Regardless of the size of your bank account, if you’ve got a child at
home who depends on you, you need to have a comprehensive Kids
Protection Plan® (KPP) in place to ensure her well-being and care in
case you can’t be there.
A KPP begins with naming legal guardians
to raise your children if anything happens to you and their mother.
But, that’s just the beginning. A comprehensive KPP will also name
local friends or family as guardians for the immediate/short-term care
of your children so that the authorities never have to take your
children out of your home and into the care of strangers. With a KPP
in place, you’ll carry an ID card in your wallet listing the names and
addresses of your immediate/short-term guardians as well as provide
written instructions to all of the people who care for your children,
such as babysitters and schools. Finally, a KPP will confidentially
exclude anyone you know you would never want to serve as guardian of
your children to ensure there are no court-room battles over your
child’s care and will also provide detailed instructions about things
like health care, education, discipline and your values, so your
children are raised the way you want, no matter what.
Document Set #2: Financial Durable Power of Attorney
A financial durable power of attorney is
something every adult needs, even if you don’t have little kids at
home. This document is what will let your family access your bank
accounts, pay your bills, and make financial and legal decisions for
you if you are hospitalized or otherwise incapacitated.
This story should bring home the importance of having a durable power of attorney in place:
My law firm was contacted by a young woman
after her father was hurt at his janitorial job, hospitalized and
unable to communicate. This man thought he didn’t need estate planning
because his income was very low and he had less than $10,000 in the
Unfortunately though, his failure to plan
left his family in a lurch. They needed the little bit of money he had
in the bank, but couldn’t access it without going to Court because the
account was in his name and he didn’t have a durable power of attorney
naming anyone to act for him legally.
The cost of going to Court was going to cost their family more than the money that was in the bank!
Don’t leave your family in this kind of a painful situation unable to
access the limited resources you have because you didn’t do what you
need to do. Be sure you have a financial durable power of attorney in
place and make sure it’s comprehensive and will work when your family
Document Set #3: Health Care Directive (Living Will)
A Health Care Directive (also known as a
Living Will or Health Care Power of Attorney) is another document set
that every adult needs, even if you don’t have little ones at home
counting on you.
These set of documents do two important things:
Appoint the person you want to make health care decisions for you, if you cannot make them for yourself; and
Tell your appointed decision-maker how you want those decisions to be made.
Each state has its own rules for how these
documents should be prepared. In some cases, your instructions can be
all in one document and in others they need to be two separate
documents. The most important thing is that you get something down in
And, once again, make sure you’ve got
something that will really work when your family needs it. I recommend
giving broad discretion to someone you trust to make decisions about
all of your health care decisions, including not only life-saving
medical care, such as respiration, but continued nutrition and
hydration in case you are incapacitated. If you recall the Terry
Schiavo case from several years ago, in which her husband and her
parents fought over whether she should be kept alive or not and the
case was brought all the way to the Florida Supreme Court, the issue
was not whether to continue to keep her lungs pumping, but whether to
continue to provide nutrition and hydration – be sure your medical
directive addresses these issues.
Document Set #4: Will:
When it comes to estate planning, most
people think of having a Will. Unfortunately, having a Will often
provides a false sense of security to people who think “I have a Will,
therefore, I’ve taken care of everything.” That’s a myth.
In fact, your Will is the least important of the 5 legal documents every dad must know about.
A Will sets forth what you want to happen
to your assets at the time of your death. But, here’s the thing, where
there’s a Will and your assets are owned in your name, the Will merely
acts as instructions to the Court as to what to do with your assets.
That means your family is stuck dealing with the Court after you are gone. Nobody wants that, trust me.
The Court process for handling your assets
after your death is called probate. It’s typically expensive,
time-consuming, and always totally public, which means anyone in town
can find out how much you’ve left behind, who it went to and when they
get it. That puts your loved ones on the radar of every con artist in
A Will alone is really only appropriate for dad’s who have no (or very
limited) assets titled in their name. If you have assets, such as a
home, bank accounts, life insurance, and retirement accounts, you need
to have a Living Trust to keep everything out of court, totally private
and make it super easy for your loved ones.
You may have heard that if you only have life insurance and retirement
accounts that you could simply name beneficiaries on those assets and
avoid probate. That’s true, but not going to work if you have minor
children because they are too young to be the beneficiaries of your
assets and would end up in Court with a guardian appointed to handle
them. Not what you want.
Document Set #5: Trust
If you have financial assets or real estate, you want to have a Living
Trust. A Living Trust is the single best way to make things as easy as
possible for the people you love, bar none.
But, and it’s a big BUT, most people who have a Living Trust in place have one that won’t work when their family needs it.
It’s the same for each of these documents I’ve talked about; they are
only going to work the way they were designed to work if the law stays
the same and your life stays the same.
As your life changes, the documents need to change.
As the law changes, the documents need to change.
And, for your Living Trust, it won’t work
unless all of your assets are titled in the name of it, not just once,
but every time you acquire an asset in the future.
I’ve met with loads of people who thought
they had everything taken care of because they had prepared these 5
documents or had them prepared by a lawyer, but because they had not
been kept up to date or their assets were not owned properly, the
documents didn’t work!
In fact, that happened in my own family
when my father in law died. He had spent thousands of dollars to work
with a lawyer who put in place a set of documents for him and then
didn’t keep them up to date and didn’t make sure his assets were owned
properly on an ongoing basis. What that meant is at the end of his
life, we were stuck dealing with the one thing he thought he was
protecting us against – the probate court and a fight with his ex-wife.
Even Michael Jackson, who no doubt spent hundreds of thousands of
dollars with his lawyers, had a trust-based estate plan that he was
probably told would keep his family out of court. As we now know, it
must have failed because his family has been dragged into court already
multiple times since his death with everything open to the public.
So, yes, these 5 documents are absolutely
vital because they will make life as easy as possible for your family,
keep your loved ones out of court and get them easy access to your
assets in the midst of a crisis, but only if they are kept up to date and your assets are owned properly.
Most people do not have the time,
knowledge and discipline to do this for themselves the right way. If
you do, great. But, who is going to guide your family to make the
right decisions and carry things out the right way after you are gone?
Because when all is said and done, that’s really what this about, isn’t?
In honor of the Dad-o-Matic
article and her appearance on Good Morning America, Alexis has
convinced her publisher to give her vital book on legal planning for
parents (Wear Clean Underwear, Morgan James Publishing 2008) away on
Kindle for just .99. Get your copy today right here.
To complicate things further, the father of these children is not
(and has never been) in the picture to claim responsibility. So fearing
the kids would end up separated in the state welfare system, a neighbor
(who also has six children of her own), stepped up to the plate. And
thankfully the Los Angeles community has stepped up to the plate by
donating diapers, clothing, food, etc. for the now mother of 10.
But in most cases, stories like this one don’t have such a happy
ending. The sad reality is that children are placed in situations their
parents would’ve never have dreamed possible because they didn’t take
the time to plan ahead in the case of their unexpected death or
Let this be a wakeup call for you.
There are three simple things that could have been done differently
to ensure these kids were taken care of upon their mother’s
passing. And if you have little ones at home counting on you, I urge
you take these steps now to ensure a legacy-and not regrets-are what
you leave behind:
1. Get a Term Life Insurance Policy- For a small
amount of money each month, this mother of three with a fourth on the
way could have been paying for a life insurance policy so that her
children were provided for financially should something happen to her
(especially knowing that their father was not in the picture and would
not contribute to their care financially). Because she did not have
life insurance in place, her children are now forced to rely on
handouts and charitable donations from neighbors until they are old
enough to support themselves.
2. Name Short-Term and Long-Term Guardians– While
this story “seems” to have a happy ending with the neighbor stepping up
to raise the four children and keep them all together, will she really
be able to manage raising ten children? Maybe there was another friend
or a family member who would have raised these kids EXACTLY as their
mom would have wanted, but we’ll never know because she didn’t document
her choices for her kids’ care.
3. Create a Legacy of Non-Tangible Assets– This
mother unexpectedly died during childbirth. Because of this, her
newborn baby will never hear the sound of her voice or know firsthand
what her mother’s values were or how she would have guided her about
things like spirit, money, discipline, education, sex, or health
care. As parents, even if you don’t have any money to leave behind, you
can leave your children a gift of your values – who you are and what’s
important to you. You can do that for free by writing letters or
recording a CD for your children. If you work with a Personal Family Lawyer®, this is just part of the legal planning process and becomes a gift that is far greater than all the money in the world.
Ideally, the best way to ensure the well-being and care of your family is to meet with a Personal Family Lawyer®-but
if that’s not feasible for you at the moment because of time or
financial constraints or because there isn’t one in your neighborhood,
I’ve given you steps you can take in the interim. My number one
suggestion is to grab a Kids Protection Planning Kit and a digital recorder or a video recorder. The Kids Protection Planning Kit
will walk you through the legal documentation process and even has
forms you can complete to leave instructions to your guardian. But,
even better than writing them out, speak them. Leave your kids an audio
or video message from you – that’s truly priceless.
Regardless of how you chose to go about it, take the time to get
your affairs in order while there’s still time-ESPECIALLY if you have
young kids depending on you at home. It’s the only way to leave behind
a real legacy-instead of regrets-at the end of your life.