When I was 15, my grandmother died. At the time, my grandfather was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and was being taken care of by my grandmother and my aunt. My grandparents had a living trust created but had failed to sign and fund it during my grandmother’s lifetime. So after she passed my grandfather hired a lawyer to redraft the trust, and with the help of my dad and his siblings, chose my aunt to act as trustee to administer the trust and conservator to help my grandfather through his illness. My dad was to act as an alternate trustee and was to be in charge of helping my aunt administer trust assets during my grandfather’s incapacity.
Not long after my grandmother’s death my grandfather was placed in a full-time care facility. One day my dad went to visit him and found that my grandfather had been placed in a room with two other people. My dad could not understand why this happened; all the siblings had set it up so that my grandfather had a private room. So my dad spoke with the administrator and was told that my grandfather had been moved because he did not have the resources to stay in a private room. So my dad went back to my aunt to look over the financial documents but she would never allow him access. Soon after he and his other two siblings went to court to have my aunt removed as trustee for violation of her fiduciary duties and it was at that point that the lawyers got involved.
A battle ensued over who was entitled to what and in the process my dad found out in an administrative hearing over whether my aunt had indeed violated her duties as trustee that the person that he thought was his dad, my grandfather, had actually adopted him when he was four years old. Knowing this fact did not really change anything for my dad, the man he thought was his dad wanted him enough to adopt him and raise him as his own. It did, however, place a strain on our family dynamic since it had been his sister who had brought the information to light in the first place in an attempt to somehow disinherit him. By the time my dad was able to have my aunt removed as trustee, the trust assets were nearly depleted and all the money my grandparents had saved during their lives went to the lawyers instead of taking care of my grandfather during his illness. He died less than two years after my grandmother.
I use this story as a launching point for my blog about estate planning because it illustrates precisely why I find my area of law so important. There is no substitute for proper planning but when your family’s well-being is at stake it becomes of the utmost importance. What I always tell my clients is that probate is stressful under the best possible circumstances but if your loved ones have to deal with the administrative hassles of locating all the relevant information and presenting it to a probate judge you are only causing them more pain. Your family members are grieving. The last thing they need is to face the expense and stress of a probate proceeding. And probate is expensive. And time-consuming. Not to mention public. So it is best to avoid the process, or at least minimize its impact, to the greatest extent possible.
My goal is to help people avoid unnecessary stress and expense by planning for their death or incapacity before either of these events occur. Just as there is no substitute for proper planning (my grandfather used to say something about the six P’s - proper planning prevents piss poor performance... I think it was a Navy thing), there is also no substitute for making all of your own decisions. Gathering all of your information and setting out all your wishes now prevents someone else from making those decisions later. This process seems daunting, and to some extent it is, but your willingness to sit down and think about the legacy you want to leave now will alleviate much of the stress for your loved ones later. Over the next several weeks I will be hosting a series of webinars on the basics of estate planning and how to go about creating and implementing your plan. My website also has some useful links on the basics of the different testamentary instruments – information put together by the California State Bar. As always I can be reached for questions or comments via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.