Recently, my husband and I did something we’d never done in fifteen years of marriage. It was a little scary, a little awkward, but in the end, incredibly satisfying. That’s right- we worked with an attorney to have our estate documents drawn up.
And yes, it’s true, I felt a little like Jean-Luc Picard during the process. It’s a great feeling to make these important decisions and put them down on paper. Your estate is like a tiny (or huge- hey, I don’t know your circumstances) ship filled with your family and your assets, that for all these years you have cared for with love, vigilance, and thoughtfulness.
An important part of caring for your “ship” and in what will become your final act on this planet, you need to set up some instructions and instruments that will send that ship on its final voyage, as you go wherever you believe you go when your eyes close their final time.
If you are like me and somehow this has been on your to-do list for more than a decade, it’s really past time to do it, particularly if you have kiddos. Do you really want someone else or the courts deciding who will be the guardian of your children?! Even old documents should be updated if you have moved states (or countries), had another child, had a change in your financial circumstances, or if your relationships with your relatives have changed. Maybe Aunt Sally has gone cuckoo for Cocoa-Puffs and is not such a great choice anymore.
Estate planning is about a lot more than your Will (or Last Will and Testament as it says in fancy, bold letters at the top of the document). Your Will is a great place to start and if you are married, you each have one. A Will covers what happens to your assets and minor children when you die, but there is a lot more that you’ll want to consider- and for some, these other things may feel more important.
If you are in Washington state and married, and you want your spouse to inherit all your property in the event that you die, you may want to have a Community Property agreement too. There can be some downsides to this agreement, so as with all of these documents (and especially ANYTHING YOU READ IN THIS BLOG), consult an attorney. I am obviously NOT one.
Perhaps surprisingly, a number of the documents that you’ll complete during estate planning do not have to do with your death- they have to do with your life, should you become incapacitated or unable to make decisions yourself.
One of these documents is a General Power of Attorney. A Power of Attorney designates someone to make decisions on your behalf, should you become incapacitated or injured- if you have a massive stroke, or an accident, or Alzheimer’s. This document gives the person you designate, aka “the agent”, the ability to make all decisions (with an important exception that we’ll get to in a moment) on your behalf. This is a powerful document and I might argue, more important than a Will because it allows them to make decisions about your affairs and assets while you are still alive. So make sure your designate someone that you trust absolutely.
The next, related document is a Power of Attorney for Health Care. This one does the same thing, but specifically covers medical and health care decisions should you become unable to make decisions about yourself. Again, this is an incredibly powerful and important document because, you want to choose the person who will make these decisions on your behalf, and you want it to be the person who will have your wishes and desires front and center as they do so.
In some cases, you may not want to designate the same person for these two roles. You may want to separate financial responsibility from health care responsibility. If you do choose two different people, make sure they will work well together and understand why you gave each of them different responsibilities.
There is one more document that goes along with these two and it is also related to your health care. It’s the one decision that you want to make yourself and not place the burden of on loved one or (shudder) the State- that’s when to “pull the plug” or in slightly less direct terms, it’s a Living Will, which is a directive to not prolong your life in the case of a terminal condition or a persistent vegetative state.
At this same time, you can also complete a simple document that designates the handling of your remains. Buried, cremated, sent into space- whatever your choice, the more of these decisions you can make, so that your family doesn’t have to, will be a great kindness to them.
I think the reasons to do all these documents are pretty obvious, but it’s not something that people spend a lot of time thinking about, so I’ll run through a few of them, just to get you motivated.
Whether it is your death or a serious injury that leaves you incapacitated, you will want to ease the burden on your family to the greatest extent possible. During a time of crisis or grief, you’ll want your family supporting, not fighting, each other. Especially over things like what “your wishes or desires” would be.
Also, if there is anything that would be a surprise to your family, like you want brother “B” not brother “A” to be your children’s guardian, or if you want to designate friends, not relatives for any of those roles- you MUST HAVE THAT IN WRITING. Even if you told your friends and relatives, “I want our best friends to be our kids guardians.” and everyone agreed- if it’s not written down- it’s unlikely to happen. In the courts, blood is thicker than water unless you have written it down.
Oh, and let’s not forget taxes! How you structure your estate can have a big impact on estate taxes. Now, I am a big believer in everyone contributing their fair share to the running of our country via taxes, but without proper planning, you can end up contributing a lot more than that, and even worse- putting your family though the pain and expense of probate, when you may not need to.
Doing your estate planning is also a great opportunity for you and your spouse, and your family, to have some serious conversations. In addition to talking about our assets and guardians for our children, we also talked about what charitable organizations we wanted to support through our estate.
It’s incredibly important to take the time to do this- yes, you want your children taken care of, but if you designate a small fraction of your estate- say 10% (or more, if you have a big estate), to charity, you are creating an important legacy and setting a worthy example for your children to follow in their lives. Not to mention, sustaining organizations that have been important to you in your lifetime.
Another benefit of doing your estate planning is that you may inspire your parents, grandparents, or siblings to update their documents- which if it has been a number of years, almost certainly is a good idea. Your parents have set a good example for you for so many years, perhaps in this case, you can set a good example for them!
So, what does all this fancy paperwork cost and how much time does it take? In our case, we made two office visits and paid a flat fee ($850) for all the documents and attorney time. I am sure it can be done both more cheaply and more expensively- but like dental work or a medical procedure- I want it done well and done right the first time. Our attorney also provided us with a very nice binder, complete with two sets of documents, a CD copy (time to switch to a USB- who has a disk drive in their computer anymore?!), and a few other planning and checklists for things that can be covered outside of the Will- lists of accounts and assets, etc.,. I love having this very tangible binder ready to go, because someday, hopefully many, many years in the future- it WILL. BE. NEEDED. That’s just the facts, Jack.
There are “do it yourself sites” for legal documents, but I am personally wary of going this route. It’s just so easy to make a mistake. Furthermore, I want someone to talk with, someone who can answer questions, and in the event of my death or my husband’s, I want the surviving spouse to already have a relationship with a legal professional they trust, to help our family through this crisis. I don’t want to be browsing websites or soliciting input from relatives during such a tumultuous time.
Anytime of year is a good time of year to get your estate planning done, but given that it’s the end of one year and the beginning of another- why not put this on your New Year’s Resolution list and get it done soon? It may force some tough conversations, but you will sleep easier and have greater peace of mind, knowing that your needs and your wishes will be executed in the manner you desire and by the person or persons you designate to do so.
A few final thoughts- I am obviously not an attorney, so talk to a real one about anything you’ve read here. There are a lot of other estate planning mechanisms like Trusts (our Will creates one, for example) that I did not cover- so if I missed something, add a comment below about what you think is important. Also, if you are local- I’m happy to recommend the attorney we worked with, Gerald Sprute– he was knowledgeable, patient, and easy to work with.
Thanks for reading and sharing! I hope you feel a little better informed and inspired to captain the ship of your estate into the future!
I was in my favorite place on earth, Winthrop, WA, a few weeks back to celebrate the 4th of July. Winthrop is charming, rustic, Western-themed town that today continues the tradition of being a hub for ranchers and farmers, and importantly has transitioned into a tourist destination for those seeking active getaways in a beautiful valley. On a busy summer weekend, every car on the street will bristle with all manner of outdoorsy paraphernalia from mountain & road bikes, to kayaks and inner tubes, to camping and hunting gear, bulging from Thule roof racks.
We were enjoying a break from mountain biking ourselves, strolling down the diminutive main drag, ducking in and out of the shops, without a care in the world- when it happened. One moment I was saying something to my 6 1/2 year old daughter, and the next moment I was staring at a gun. Now, it wasn’t pointed at me, but it was about eight inches from my daughters face, so to say my heart skipped a beat is an understatement. It was as out of place as if someone had walked up and slapped me.
The man in front of me was participating in the practice known as open carry. As in, I have a gun stuck in the back of my pants and I want you to know it. The gun was in some kind of fanny-pack (he’d call it a holster) and it was perched there like a flower stuck in a vase- a very deadly flower. My initial reaction was shock followed quickly by anger. Then, almost as quickly as he was in front of me, he was gone. He turned into the next shop and we kept moving down the block toward our destination.
However brief that moment was, it was a lightening strike. As bright and harsh as a fiery bolt of electricity, it illuminated in a flash why open carry is so harmful.
Let’s Get One Thing Straight
Let me state emphatically- I am not opposed to gun-ownership and I am a supporter of intelligent gun rights. Please don’t read any secret agenda into that- I truly support the right to bear arms and given the chance, I’ll happily have a dialogue about the parameters that should be implemented to ensure everyone who wishes to, can enjoy and own guns safely. The comparison to car ownership and operation may seem like a cliched argument (and may not be enshrined in the constitution- because let’s be honest, it would be an amendment about horse ownership) but it is incredibly relevant and apt. I’ll come back to that in a little bit. In fact, NYT Opinion Columnist, Nicholas Kristof, just had some great thoughts about this idea.
Like most Americans, I have many friends who are hunters and frankly, if you are a meat eater, you are a bit of a hypocrite if you don’t support hunters. I admire the ability to dress a kill and have enjoyed the fruits of these endeavors (whether as jerky or steaks). When the zombie apocalypse happens, I’ll be glad to count these folks as friends. Further, I have many friends who enjoy owning a handgun and although we may argue about whether or not possessing a gun actually makes them safer- in many ways that’s beside the point, they have the right to own a firearm.
Not to mention, the United States has the highest rate of firearm ownership in the world, 97 guns for every 100 people; 50% more than the next two closest countries (those paragons of civil society, Serbia & Yemen)- so to a very real degree, regardless of your feelings on the subject- guns are here to stay. No one (at least not me) is arguing that fact.
What I do want to address is the impact of reducing the complex issue of gun regulation to a one-dimensional “all or nothing” argument. It’s ridiculous. We should feel embarrassed as a nation to allow that kind of shallow invocation to distract us from the real opportunity and need in front of us. We must find a way, both in terms of our laws and more importantly, in our attitudes and social mores, to ensure public safety and security. To do nothing is selfish, arrogant, and short-sighted. One place to begin is with a careful look at the impact of open carry on social dynamics, freedom of speech, and safety.
The Reality of Open Carry
Back to that moment in the sun in Winthrop. Recall, the open carry individual and I didn’t even make eye contact, though my first impulse was to reach out and tap him on the shoulder. I wanted to ask him, “What the HELL are you thinking?” How dare you introduce that kind of threat into our peaceful afternoon? What if my daughter had tripped and instinctively reached in front of her to catch herself? What if I had tripped (a pretty common occurrence) and stumbled into him? What if he thought I was a threat? An unarmed person, even one spoiling for a fight, would do no more than push me, but this guy- who’s arrogance and slavish devotion to belief puts every member of the community at a very real physical disadvantage. He could shoot me. He could KILL me. In front of my daughter. And he might even successfully claim it was self-defense. That’s the reality we invite when we tolerate open-carry in the public sphere.
It’s important to note that in Washington State, open carry is legal (even without a permit), so this man wasn’t legally doing anything wrong, but he was in a very tangible way, impacting every person around him, by destabilizing the dynamics of power, community, and freedom from fear that our society relies upon to function.
Critics may move to dismiss my assertion as hysterical or naive, but that’s the lazy voice of misdirection. The crux of the issue is this: when one person has a gun and another doesn’t, the person without a gun has less power, less voice, and in point of fact, can be under threat of death in an instant. Standing eight inches behind that open carry person as a pedestrian, I was “safe”. However, I have no doubt that I could have provoked the guy into shooting me (perhaps with words alone) and that is not okay. It is not okay that my ability to speak and move about on a public street was limited because one guy had a pointless point to make. The other lazy answer to this is to arm *both* people. But we know that’s a violence multiplier, not a violence reducer. It’s bananas to think that any rational person would want to live in a society where we all walk around armed.
Cars vs. Guns
Back to the cars vs. guns analogy. Although the right to own a car is not in the Constitution (again, it would be a horse amendment), US car ownership is on par with gun ownership; particularly with respect to other nations. We have the highest level of car ownership in the world. Car ownership and what it represents in real terms and psychologically, is vitally important to America and yet, we have a whole body of comprehensive laws that folks are more or less happy with and abide by. It is not only against the law to drive on the sidewalk in the US, but it’s also socially unacceptable. You may laugh, but that’s NOT true in all other countries. Social norms in Kenya (where I lived as a Peace Corps volunteer), dictate that cars can drive wherever they can fit- sidewalks, center dividers, into on-coming traffic- whatever they can get away with. Through enforcement of our laws and our social norms, we have made car ownership a reasonably safe and regulated prospect. Insurance, training, safety features, consumer protections. Remember when seat belts weren’t mandatory in cars? Okay, me neither- the law was changed in 1968, but I DO remember when it became the law to *wear* a seat belt in California in the mid ’80’s.
Only someone grossly out of touch with reality would *ever* suggest we abolish cars in the United States. It’s not even a serious conversation, BUT it is a good discussion to talk about ways to continue to improve safety, efficiency, affordability, and alternate methods of transportation. The same holds true for gun legislation. Criminal background checks for gun buyers has overwhelming popular support among Republicans and Democrats and yet it becomes Kryptonite the minute Capitol Hill goes near it. And it’s true- no one piece of legislation will be a silver bullet (see what I did there?), but again, that’s beside the point. That’s like saying that seat belts don’t save ALL the lives, so let’s just forget them. We must take some moderate, common sense steps toward improving the safety and security of guns for the benefit all Americans.
Our Collective Responsibility
Changing our attitudes and laws takes courage and it will, ultimately take trust. So I am taking a first step, gathering my courage and showing trust. It was difficult for me to write this post. I had to consider whether someone might decide that my voice, my words, would be considered a threat to their “security” or “freedom”. In writing this, do I put my family at risk? As a parent, this is a sickening question to ponder. But the answer is- if I don’t speak up, if I don’t advocate for common sense, if I don’t call for the nation to join together in support of safety for all, in conjunction with (not at the expense of) the rights of the individual, who will? There are many individuals and organizations doing this, but we haven’t seen the groundswell of moral conviction and support that must be present to change, not just the laws, but our society itself. Again- it’s crucial to reject the urge to marginalize or derail progress by sounding the “slippery slope” alarm. It’s a specious cry and one that Americans must step up and prove that we are smarter than.
So, my call to action? Share this post, comment on this post, write your own post. Get involved. Add your voice. Conventional wisdom would say call your senator or representative, but maybe it’s time to expand our approach. Contact your local gun store, contact your local NRA chapter, your hunting club, your shooting range. Contact the gun manufacturers- tell them you will support the makers and sellers who are committed to responsible gun ownership.
As for my encounter in Winthrop? It was a grim reminder of what we are allowing to become “the norm” in the public sphere.