Today is the anniversary of the invention of the electric light bulb, a monumental moment in the development of modern life.  Personally, I think the invention of the disposable paper nose tissue was the single greatest invention for the improvement of quality of life, but there are no documentaries about it’s origins, so instead I will offer you this 1922 look at a day in the life of Thomas Edison.

Not all your “property” is yours

confused ladyDid you know that some of what you think you own might not actually be yours?

I help people decide what they want to do with their property at their death. I write documents that ensure that their wishes can be carried out.  As part of my job, I ask people about the property they own.  And what I know because of this, is that most people don’t have clue about online property.

It’s important to know what property is yours.  That sounds like an unnecessary statement to make, but we actually have a lot of property that we believe is ours, but that actually is not.  And that can cause you problems. If not now, it can cause problems later on for the people you thought you left the property to at your death.

Almost everyone has digital property. Online accounts for social media, blogs, websites, email are all types of digital property, as well as any files you place on those accounts.  But some of that “property” is not really yours.  Take, for example, a facebook account. Most American adults have a facebook account, and many of us use it as a repository for photographs, as well as an ad hoc diary of our life.  But the account is not actually owned by you.  It is actually owned by Facebook, and they retain nearly all rights to determine if and how you get to keep the account and the files housed there.  The practical effect of this is that when you have personally meaningful files stored there, most commonly photographs, you risk losing access to all of them if you do not have backups on your own computer or storage device, such as a flashdrive, hard disk, or CD.

Cloud storage companies are used by many people for their valuable photo and text files.  Some act simply as a storage service for files that you retain ownership of.  Others may simply be a location to display files but the company has no obligation to make those files accessible to you.

It’s complicated.  You must be absolutely sure you know what you are doing when you upload files to the internet, or you must be absolutely sure that you have those files backed up on storage devices within your possession.

Carelessness with your digital property might mean you actually lose your property completely, or that your loved ones cannot get access to it after your death.

If you have questions about your digital property and how to protect it, call the Austin Texas office of Pamela Parker.

Sarah Silverman’s Scary ICU Story

Comedian Sarah Silverman announced today (read her facebook post here) that she’s spent the last week in the hospital in intensive care after going to her doctor about a sore throat.  It turns out she had a potentially life threatening bacterial infection.  Her medical team knocked her out during the many days of treatment, so she was completely, and suddenly without warning, out of commission.  She calls herself “insanely lucky” to be alive.

Preparing for short term disability isn’t something most people think about, but it’s immensely important.  If you find yourself unexpectedly out of commission like Silverman did, without advance planning documents like HIPAA releases and medical and durable powers of attorney, your friends and family might have a really difficult time getting information about your condition, and on the much worse end of the spectrum, you might find that your rent or mortgage check didn’t get turned in and you now have either big late fees or, even worse, an eviction notice to deal with.

Just listen to the morning traffic report and its long list of accidents and you’ll know that many people are likely finding themselves in this vulnerable position.  You, however, can take care of this right now while you’re thinking about.  Call your local friendly lawyer and ask about getting your death and disability planning done now.


So Prince didn’t have a will. Does it really matter?

As always when a celebrity dies, a few days after news of the death you will find mentions of whether or not there was a will.  Why?  Who cares?  And beyond the public’s curiosity, does it even matter if there was a will?

Yes, there are a lot of reasons why it matters, and here’s a few of those reasons.

  • The public loves dirt.  Wills are filed with the court and become public.  So if a celebrity has a secret lover, or is disinheriting a child, or wants a long time employee to inherit everything, the public gets to know.  They want a window into the private life of high profile people, and a will often gives them that.  Which is precisely why most celebrities use trusts in addition to a will to protect their personal affairs.  Trusts are not available to the public, and the particulars of who gets what stay private.
  • We want to know if the celebrity was smart or not.  Anyone with an estate over about six million dollars has the potential to pay federal estate taxes, a tax that is in addition to ordinary income taxes.  Estate planning allows people with large estate to minimize the amount of estate tax paid when they die, in much the same way itemizing your tax returns can save on income taxes over simply taking the standard deduction.  It’s perfectly legal and quite prudent to do what you can to minimize the estate tax owed, but if no will or any other planning has been done, the estate may pay large amounts to the federal government that could have gone to the heirs. When a celebrity dies without a will, it almost certainly means that “too much” will be paid in taxes.
  • Lives are complicated, and not everyone you love is related by blood.  When there is no will, the only people who can inherit are those related by blood (or adoption in most cases).  Which blood relations inherit depends on the individual state laws, but no one who is not related can inherit from someone who is not a blood relation or a spouse at the time of the death.  Celebrities with large estates have the means to spread their love around, and they often do . . . but the court cannot award anyone, even those who were clearly close and clearly financially dependent on a celebrity, anything not provided for in a will or trust.
  • Are we going to remember the person, or the mess?  The old saying “death is a part of life” doesn’t just mean that all life includes death.  It also means that all the circumstances surrounding your own death become part of your life story.  If your death without a will, or with a poorly written will, means that your name is forever after mentioned with a tag line that goes something like ” . . . and s/he left such a mess when s/he died,” then you have obscured the good things about your life for eternity.  Who among us can think of Anna Nicole Smith without also thinking about the long and bizarre court battles over her estate?  Who among us doesn’t have at least one relative who died without a will and caused all sorts of stress and problems for the family?

It’s too early to know if Prince’s life and work will be marred by ongoing stories about his estate, but by failing to write a will he certainly did not protect his legacy the way he protected his music during his long career.  Even we less purple humans can protect what we have and those we love.

In case of parents’ death . . .

It’s not often that stories are written about the exciting world of estate planning.

Tonight’s episode of the television show “Blackish” revolves around the parents’ realization that they haven’t, but should, name guardians for their children in case of their own deaths.  The kids are now pre-teens and tweens, so the parents decide they need to get moving on this.  Good for them!

But then it devolves into arguments over whose family would make the better caretakers, and whose family shouldn’t even be allowed near the kids, and we see some of the stress that leads parents to put this off until the need for it disappears. Fortunately, there are ways around this.  Watch this short youtube video I made a couple of years ago for ideas on what to do when you don’t know what to do.

If you need to do this important planning, give my office a call to set up an appointment to get it done.

And if you decide to pretend like you are immortal, you can listen to this song I found on Youtube while looking for my guardianship video.

Are disability benefits taxable?

I have a good friend who works at the IRS, and every year I get emails from her for about a week before April 15 reminding to get my taxes done.  It’s not that she thinks I’ll forget, she’s just so excited about Tax Day she can’t help herself!

Frankly, I don’t get nearly as excited about it as she does, but I do like to get them in on time and I really like to do them correctly.  So here’s the answer to the big question many families have when a member is receiving SSI benefits: do you have to file taxes?

SSI benefits, which are available to individuals over 18 who have a developmental disability and have never worked or who make only a very small income, (and some children under 18 whose families have lower incomes), are not taxable by the federal government.  If your child receives SSI benefits and has no other income, then it is not necessary to file a tax return.

However, if your child has other income – including social security benefits through a parent, then some of the income may be taxable and you may need to file a return.

For more information, you can check out IRS Publication 907.

Drop Everything! Where’s the POA??

stickman-310590_1280You wrote a will, completed a power of attorney (POA), and you review yearly to see if updates need to be made.  You are doing well and your family will be in good shape if something happens to you.

Or will they be?

Just as important as having those documents, is making sure your executor and agents can find them when they are needed.  If you’re in the hospital and your POA is needed to conduct important business for you, would your agent be able to find it?  Maybe you even gave your agent a copy of it and they have it in their possession – do they know where they put it?  Can they lay their hands on it quickly when they need it?

It may be years after you make these documents before they are needed.   Remembering where you put a piece of paper years ago can be a lot harder than you think.  Especially if the house has been rearranged, new furniture bought, maybe even a move . . . and then no one knows where the folder with mom’s POA has wound up.

I recommend a once a year document drill.  Pick a day – maybe your birthday – to lay hands on your will and other documents.  And if you have given copies to other family members, call them up and ask them to lay hands on the papers.  Simply reciting where they are kept is not enough. Tell them to go physically pick them up and look at them, then report back to you that they’ve done it.

They will thank you when the time comes to use those documents.

Death and disability planning is an ongoing process

arrow-945271_640 Life does not stand still, but your estate plan will if you don’t actively keep up with it. Planning is not a one time event.

If you have a current will or full estate plan, you know the feeling of relief that hits as soon as you sign that last paper.  It feels great to have your death and disability planning done. But as important as that is, it is just as important to review your documents regularly and make sure they still do what you need them to do.  Sometimes it’s obvious your will or other documents need to be changed, but some things that might trigger the need for revisions aren’t as obvious.

Major Life Changes


A marriage, a divorce, and a new child are all times when the lawyer should be called and updates made to your documents.  But you should also discuss whether changes are needed when you have a drastic change in income, or move to another state, or when you or a close family member develop a chronic health problem or disability.  All of these major life changes might require changes to your plan and should be discussed with your attorney.

Many Purchases Should Trigger Updates

Wills and trusts lawyers help you plan for what you own at the time you are planning, as well as any reasonaly likely changes.  But if you acquire or lose major property after you create your will, your plan may need to be updated. For example of you gain or lose a large life insurance policy or pension fund, or if you transfer assets from cash or stocks or real estate into another type of asset, there may be changes needed in your will to make sure that all property is distributed appropriately.


Annual Review

You may not need to make changes to your plan every year, but you should review your plan each year to be sure.  A simple read through of your documents may jog your memory as to things you wanted or needed to change.  Death and disability planning is intended to protect you and to carry out your wishes after death, and it is more likely to do so if you review regularly and keep it up to date.

Sensory processing, coats, and parenting

This morning I was sitting in a mostly empty parking lot checking my email and waiting for the post office to open.  A few spaces away a car pulled in and parked, and a small family got out – mom, dad, and a little girl who looked about two and a half years old.  She was dressed in a cute little skirt and top with a ribbon in her hair.  But it’s about 45 degrees here and windy this morning, so mom says, “Here’s your coat, I know you don’t like coats but you need to put it on because it’s cold.”

The sweet little girl instantly became a red faced, squealing, squirming bundle of terror on the parking lot pavement.  As mom and dad, showing the type of patience and teamwork that clearly indicated they had practiced this scene hundreds of time, struggled to get the coat on her, I flashed back to scenes from my own home during elementary school when my oldest daughter cried and tantrummed and raised the bar on things that make no sense when she would want to wear clothes that were two sizes too small for her, swear that anything that actually fit was about to fall off,  or want to wear the same thing she had already been wearing for a week.   I also flashed on one memorable morning when she angrily pulled every piece of clothing out of her dresser, tossing them on the floor while screaming that there was nothing for her to wear because all her clothes were “damp.”

This same daughter never had a good relationship with her coats, either.  She was constantly losing them. She would forget to put them on.  She would forget to pick them up when leaving a place.  She would forget she owned one.

In junior high, it became a running struggle to get her to wear one at all when headed off to school.  Since that’s a common theme for junior high kids (“I’m not cold, mom!”) I didn’t think too much about it, other than to think she would eventually suffer being cold enough that she would start wearing it.  But it continued on into high school.  On the coldest mornings (which, granted, are not all that cold here in central Texas) she would put on four shirts rather than wear her coat.  By the end of high school, I had stopped even buying her coats.

I convinced myself that her tacit decision to never wear a coat was actually a sign of her maturing into acceptance of the ADD  she had eventually been diagnosed with. If you can’t figure out a way to stop losing your coats, then stop wearing them. You can’t lose a coat you don’t have, after all.

But it turns out it was a bit more complicated than that. One evening a few months ago my daughter, now 19 and a freshman in college, called me as she was walking across campus to her dorm on an evening when the safety escort service was closed.  It was about a twenty minute walk to her dorm and she thought if she was on the phone she would be safer from attack – I don’t know if that’s true but at least I ‘d be able to call for help immediately if something did happen.

During the conversation the weather came up.  It had been unusually cold here and that night was in the twenties as she trekked across the campus.

I said “you’re not wearing a coat, are you?” and she answered “no, I have a sweater on and four shirts, though.”

Me: “I figured you wouldn’t be wearing one, but when it’s this cold you really should, you know.”

Daughter: “You want to know why I never wear a coat?”

Me:  “I always thought it was because you couldn’t lose them that way.”

Daughter: “No, it’s because I can’t stand the way the way they sound when the sleeves rub against your body.  That sound makes me absolutely crazy. I can hear it all over my body and I can’t stand it.” ID-10049346

That was a bombshell to me. Her twin brother has autism and another son has cerebral palsy.  I was well aware of sensory processing issues and the effects they can have.  I even knew that my daughter’s clothing issues as a child had been related to sensory processing difficulties.  But it had never occurred to me to think about sensory answers to some of the other “crazy” things she did.  But if I had known the sound was driving her disinterest in coats, we could easily have looked for specific types of coats and probably found something that worked for her.  I’m a firm believer in rooting out the reasons behind odd behavior, because I have found that once you find it, you can usually work with it.

As for the family on the ground in the parking lot earlier, I really wish I could have gone up to one of the parents and told them about my daughter’s revelation.  Simply changing the type of coat they buy their daughter might solve the problem.  But I know from experience that when a parent is in the middle of working hard to keep their cool and their patience in the presence of a screaming child is not the time to offer suggestions, even perfect suggestions.  Because parents can get sensory overload, too.  I hope these parents read the internet.

My Left Hand

left handMy left hand is not very good at doing most of the things my right hand can do.  It doesn’t move as fast and it’s less coordinated, which leads to problems like poking my mouth with the fork if I try to eat with my left hand.  I can write with my left hand, but it would take a cryptologist to read it.  I can type with it, of course, but if I go too fast the letters on the right side of the keyboard overtake the letters on the left and typos pile up.  Even shaking my hands when I do the hokey pokey requires accepting that they will not shake in tandem, rather, the left will put up a good show but the right will get all the shaking glory.

In other words, my left hand can do the same things my right hand can do, but it really should leave the right to do the things it excels at and the left should stick to the things it does well – like hold the baby safely in my arms while my right manipulates the bottle.  Like stabilizing the tape dispenser while the right hand deftly tears a piece off.  Like holding the glass still while the right hand pours the milk.  You get the idea.

Why do I bring this up, you may ask?  Because I’ve seen a lot of people who are not attorneys try to write their own wills, their own trusts, and take care of their affairs on their own.  The problem is, these folks are doing the thing they are good at, which is deciding how they want to distribute their things, who they want to handle their affairs for them, and what kind of provisions they want to leave their family, but then going farther and trying to do the things they are not good at, which is knowing how to make sure what they want to happen actually happens.

You are the best person to decide how you want to handle your affairs. But an attorney is the best person to make sure you consider all the right circumstances and to make sure that all the right legal documents are created to ensure that what you want is what actually happens.

Don’t try to make your left hand do things it doesn’t do very well.  You might wind up poking your family in the eye with a poorly put together estate plan.